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Neuropsychology

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Perspectives on Neuropsychology

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Overview

Source: Laboratories of Jonas T. Kaplan and Sarah I. Gimbel— University of Southern California

Neuropsychology is a complex field, as it investigates how mental processes are executed in the brain—events that integrate concepts from biochemistry, biology, psychology, and neuroscience. Although the multidisciplinary nature of neuropsychology prepares young learners for a variety of careers, it also poses a challenge in that it forces students to study concepts outside of their comfort zone. For example, a psychology major may have difficulty grasping neuroanatomy—a challenging topic in itself—given that the brain is a complicated, three-dimensional organ that is typically represented two-dimensionally in textbooks.

This JoVE collection in Neuropsychology introduces major concepts and methods in the field, and showcases how advances in imaging technology have allowed us to look inside the brain and visualize its structure and function. Importantly, these videos are also meant to reassure students that you don’t need to be an expert in all aspects of neuropsychology to understand how the brain shapes our experiences, behaviors, and social interactions in everyday life. For instance, the video "Decision-making and the Iowa Gambling Task" explores how damage to a specific region of the brain can affect an individual’s proclivity for risky decisions, like stealing.

These JoVE videos in Neuropsychology provide the perfect introduction to this complex topic, and also explore some of the potential, exciting future directions in this field. With further advances in technology, one day researchers might even be able to visualize dynamic changes in a person’s brain outside of a laboratory setting—for example, when they are sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture on neuropsychology.

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This is a field where we try to understand how mental processes are implemented in the biology of the brain. And it's really a multi-disciplinary field. It's at the nexus of psychology and biology, chemistry, computer science, cognitive science and so it has a lot of implications for a lot of different fields and as a student that gives it significance for all these different paths that one might take as a student. If you're gonna end up studying medicine and being a doctor, obviously neuroscience is important. Or if you're going to study psychology or computer science they can inform those fields as well.

The brain is the most complicated object in the universe and so it is difficult to understand for anyone. Even just the structure of the brain, neuroanatomy, can be a difficult topic to understand. How do we reconstruct in our heads what this complex three dimensional object looks like just from looking at two dimensional pictures of it is really difficult to understand how all the different parts relate to one another in space. Also because neuroscience is multi-disciplinary, sometimes it's hard to understand aspects that are from a discipline that isn't to your comfort zones. So if you come from a chemistry background for example, might be difficult to understand some of the psychological concepts. If your background is in psychology, maybe it's difficult to understand some of the biochemistry of how the neuroscience works. 

Well one this is because this is such a broad field that involves such a wide range of technologies and methods, it's really difficult for any one person to be an expert in all of them. And so what we're hoping to do here is to show a taste of all of the different range of methodologies that are used in our field today. Another thing is that we're trying to emphasize that there are people involved in these experiments and that this is a field that studies human beings. We're trying to understand the human mind and so we want to get across what it's like for a person to be involved in these experiments and even though they're written from the point of view of the experimenter of how we accomplish running one of these experiments. We also hope that people who watch them get a taste of what it feels like to actually be a participant in an experiment like this. 

Some of the key questions being addressed in this field are questions that we've had for a long time that we still need to understand better. For example, how do perceptual systems work in the brain? There's plenty more for us to learn about how seeing and hearing happen in the brain and how those systems interact with each other. We also have plenty of questions about how memory works in the brain, how executive functions work. Some of the newer questions that neuroscientists have been asking have to do with social functions because humans are such highly social animals, there's a lot to understand about how those social functions are influenced by the brain. Also because we have new technologies that have allowed us to look at the anatomical and functional connections between different brain regions, we're starting to raise new questions about how the network structure of the brain relates to cognition. 

It would be really hard to exaggerate how important the brain is for our everyday lives. Really everything that we experience in our everyday life is because of our brain. Everything that we see, everything that we hear, all of the emotions that we feel, all of the amazing things that we're able to do with our body are because of the organization of our brain. And that's what we're trying to understand in this field. 

Well this is a field that has really benefited greatly from advances in technology. It used to be that almost everything we knew about the human brain we knew because of cases of brain damage where the brain was hurt either intentionally or unintentionally. We had to make inferences about what that region of the brain that was damaged actually does. But now with imaging technologies, we can look inside a living human person's head and look at the structures of the brain and also look at the function of the brain while people engage in the various cognitive tasks that they do in their everyday lives. So it's really a field that has advanced very rapidly along with changes in technology. 

We expect that in the future, new technologies will allow us to look at the brain in greater detail. Both in greater spacial detail and greater temper of detail as well so that we can understand the brain even better than we do now. Also to look at the brain in more naturalistic environments for example, to be able to image the brain while people are walking around on the street as oppose to lying in the tube of an MRI machine. Also with the accumulation of larger and larger data sets, what some people call big data for example, we expect to have new insights to the relationship between brain structure and function and things like personality and genetics. Things that require looking across broad populations instead of the small data sets that we have now. 

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