01 March 2010

When is neuroscience not neuroscience? When it’s neurobiology

It was a great pleasure that I found out that this blog had been shortlisted for the “Best Neuroscience Blog” category of the ResearchBlogging.org awards.

I am soooo going to lose.

But I’m good with that. First, I’ve read some several of the other blogs, and already know they’re great. Second, this blog exists, much like I do, on a teetering precipice between disciplines. Neuro stuff is just one third (at best) of what this blog is about, scientifically.

And “neuroscience” is, increasingly, not a comfortable fit with me. I’ve thought more than a little about whether I am a neuroscientist, and more and more, I reckon the answer is, “No.”

Neuroscience has become a distinct discipline of science in the last couple of decades. It has ties to biology, psychology, medicine, computation, and more. But it isn’t a subdiscipline of biology any more, in the way that entomology or microbiology or mycology still is.

The enterprise of neuroscience as a mature independent discipline is to understand, as neuroscientists put it, “the” brain. The use of the definite article here is deliberate, because it’s that phrase is often used, and the implication is clear: the only kind of brain that really matters is the human brain. Sure, you can study other kinds of organisms, but they are little more than carnival sideshow unless there’s some sort of hint that what’s learned there will inform our understanding of human brains.

It’s gotten harder for people studying other kinds of animals to hold their own. In the 1970s and 1980s, I think there was more interest in studying non-humans, because you could more easily record neural activity. In the 1990s, fMRI hit the scene and the presence of its high resolution brain scans have been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. I think that’s directly cut into interest in non-human neuroscience at almost every level.

The emphasis on model organisms has also seemed to become stronger, probably brought about by the power of genetic analysis. Animals with sequenced genomes got attention. The genome club is getting bigger, but it’s still a small group.

Consequently, neuroscience (which should be the broad discipline) is in some ways narrower in scope than neurobiology. Neurobiology tends to pitch a bigger tent, species wise.

It may be too strong to say, “I didn’t leave neuroscience; neuroscience left me.” But I don’t see a way for neurobiology to make its way back to the mainline of the field of neuroscience, leaving me and my colleagues working increasingly distant from it.

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