I study Neurosciences. Not just neuroscience. In this field, neuroscientists are expected to wear multiple types of hats, figuratively and literally, depending on the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required. We are expected to master a variety of techniques and be knowledgeable of even more methods and technologies than we can get our hands on. The reason for the extensive library of knowledge? To answer questions about the brain at multiple levels of complexity, where each level can give a clue to a function, a cure, or a new direction to look.
Take drug addiction research, for example. We have a whole government organization, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), dedicated to funding studies on why people abuse drugs. The subjects alone in these studies range from different human populations, to rodents, to even flies. At the human-population level, we can ask questions about trends in the demographics of people who abuse drugs. The answers to those questions can help shape policies aimed to reduce drug abuse.
With rodents and other animal models, scientists can test hypotheses about causes of drug abuse by directly probing biological mechanisms in the brain. The cool thing about those experiments is that we can manipulate a gene, a protein, or a type of brain cell to prove that it is involved in drug addiction by looking at the rodent’s drug-seeking behavior before and after the manipulation (or by comparing experimental group to the appropriate control group). Then scientists can take the studies a step further to explore how those biological mechanisms impact other cells or molecular pathways or gene expression. The results of those studies can help us get closer to finding better treatments for drug addiction.
To answer questions about the brain during drug addiction, we need different tools for each level of complexity being studied. Below are some of the methods used in drug-addiction research to answer questions about the brain and drug relapse:
Method: Animal Behavior – This is a super vague term that encompasses many experiments involving animals. In drug-addiction research, animals are typically trained to press a lever or nose poke to get drugs.
Tools: animals, operant chambers, mazes, swimming pool, computers, patients.
Questions: How do drugs affect memory performance? How do drug-related cues and environments affect drug seeking? How do manipulations to the brain affect drug seeking?
Method: Optogenetics – This method enables scientists to alter brain cell activity by shining light onto neurons expressing receptors that respond to light.
Tools: lasers, computers, optic fibers, transgenic animals, brain surgery tools, animal behavior tools
Questions: How do specific cell types contribute to memory for drug reward? How are brain cells with certain receptors involved in drug-seeking behavior? How does the activation of a specific brain circuit affect relapse?
Method: Microscopy – This method allows scientists to make observations at the single cell or synapse level by measuring changes seen when the cells are magnified. Combined with other tools and methods, microscopy can be very powerful in answering questions about the brain.
Tools: brain slices or cells, microscope lenses, lasers, computer software
Optional: virus labeling technologies, immunohistochemistry, golgi-cox stain
Questions: How does drug addiction affect neuron growth such as dendritic branching? How does withdrawal from drugs affect the number of cells expressing a specific protein?
There are many other types of research tools important in neuroscience, involving chemistry, electrophysiology, computational biology, genetics, FMRI, EEG, proteomics, microbiology, nanotechnology, and so much more. It has become increasingly important for researchers to use multiple levels of analysis to answer scientific questions in order to receive grant funding and publish papers. During reviews of grants and scientific manuscripts, a diverse group of reviewers with a wide range of expertise is needed to fully address all the methods and tools used for these studies.
The interdisciplinary nature of neurosciences is what makes the field so exciting and inviting to anyone interested in the brain.
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