November 8, 2011

The Big Picture: Neuroscience At All Levels!

This is a shorter, somewhat informative post really aimed towards people outside neuroscience (or students just beginning neuroscience) in order to let them know all the levels of analysis researchers take.

The story begins: 

Too often, science researchers forget the big picture.  They get involved and captivated by their little niche of research, which is a good thing, for the most part!  For example, those electrophysiologists and their networks, cognitive scientists and their 'bigger' questions, chemists and their molecules, etc.  I, too, am guilty, as I rarely venture outside the realm of what I am researching (though I try), let alone outside neuroscience or some aspects of psychology!

So, I wanted to bring it back to reality (for me, at least) and think of 'The Big Picture' and just appreciate the other areas of neuroscience for a bit that give rise to one of my favorite things to study.  For an example, why does behavior captivate me?  I first became interested in neuroscience and behavior upon recognizing the seamless integration of behaviors within the central and peripheral nervous system.  Such a simple task as stalking prey while simultaneously hunting with a pack of fellow attackers is almost mind-blowing when one cogitates the vast complexity of levels.

The full story is below the pictures.

Let's study all the levels of neuroscience!

Planning an attack between a pack of 'wolves' is
not only a behavioral action, but it is also a cognitive
action, as depicted from above... moving forward...
they end up hunting their prey (source)

updating the behavioral attack theory
(motor behavior) based on
incoming perceptual information,
like the prey trying to run to the left

Local connectivity between neurons within
each of the larger areas, presumably
communicating with each other and
calculating computational outcomes

some areas involved in
defensive behaviors that
'trigger' the behaviors

neuron(s)-to-neuron communication
signalling specific information about
'emotion' or 'behavior' ?

synthesis and release of
neurotransmitter for electro-
chemical transmission that leads
to communcation between
neurons (source)

molecular form of ion channel that receive
the neurotransmitter(s) (source)
what is the chemical structure of neurotransmitters
and what is the electrical output of such? (source)

Running with the 'hunting your prey in a pack of wolves' example...

On a larger scale, this encompasses not only muscular behaviors, which play out in a wide-range of behavioral repertoires, but also the cognitive actions occurring: working memory, attention, perception, updating of the perception-action cycle, proprioceptive management, balancing despite unconsciously running over a rock in the attackers path, and list goes on....

Even smaller, yet: you have little cluster of neurons receiving and spitting out information, local- and long-range electro-chemical signalling, the oft-forgotten inhibition of circuits.

Even smaller, yet: the diffuse 'spray' of the neurotransmitters to certain other brain regions, the regulation of your breathing so you don't die, washing of blood over your brain and to giving oxygen to highly-active brain regions.

Even smaller, yet: the building of ion channels, the insertion/deletion of channels, the ion channel pumping to help regulate electrical charges, the synthesis of neurotransmitters, or even building an entire new neuron from scratch!

Even smaller, yet: what are the chemical structures of those ion channels, neurotransmitters, proteins, etc..  or, what is the electrical action occurring between neural transmission, when ions flow in and out?

For me, I prefer to think of 'behavior' as in a behavior aimed at doing something..  Not the behavior of walking to the store, yet still fascinating, but the behavior of, say, a mouse running a maze (integrating cognition into behavior), defensive behaviors (integrating emotion into behaviors), or the behavior of people watching a sports game (the integration of mirror neuron system, intentions, beliefs, ... into behaviors).

This is a good post, I think, for students of neuroscience to look at, as it shows all (maybe not all, but most) levels of analysis one can study in the neural sciences.

Have fun with neuroscience and be sure to keep in mind all the different 'things' that are going on at that one particular moment, like when you're reading this!


  1. Cheers Lucas,
    This is a very good post! I'm a brazilian neuroscience student and also a blogger (kind of blogger actually), your post is very clear and concise what makes ease to understand. I will recomend your page for some beginners neuroscience students that I know.
    Best wishes from Brazil.

    1. Thanks! And keep in touch/reading. I'll be posting another soon.