Neuro in three acts: Fundamentals of Neuroscience MOOC series

Course: Fundamentals of Neuroscience (three course series)
Length: 5, 6, and 8 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: David Cox
Quote:

Based on the introductory neurobiology courses taught at Harvard College, Fundamentals of Neuroscience is a three-part series that explores the structure and function of the entire nervous system — from the microscopic inner workings of a single nerve cell to the staggering complexity of the brain.
You’ll study the electrical properties of individual neurons, examine how neurons pass signals to one another, and how complex dynamics result from just a few neurons. You’ll explore sensation, perception, and the physiology of functional regions of the brain.
Through fun animations, documentaries, and interactive virtual labs discover what makes the brain tick and how we perceive the world around us.

I’ve been taking this three-part series for so long, I don’t even remember when it started – oh, there it is, September 4, Part 1, The Electrical Properties of the Neuron. Then, in mid-October, Part 2, Neurons and Networks started, while Part 3, the examination of the broadest system, The Brain, began on Dec. 5. It’s all self-paced; in general, I finished each segment early, since I’ve been doing introductory neuro over and over for a while now. What can I say, I like brain stuff. I still have about a week to go before I finish up Part 3, but I wanted to get my postings done before the end of the year to clear the decks for Pushcart on January 1.

IIRC, I started this course several years ago when I was still fairly new to moocs; I quickly dropped it, since it was loaded with off-site content, much of which I had a lot of trouble working (I’m not sure if it was the system, or me, that was faulty). Things went much better this time around, perhaps due to streamlined and imported bells and whistles, perhaps due to me being better prepared.

I get the sense the developers of the course were really most interested in the first segment on electrical properties of the neuron –potentials, resistance, and the effects of electrolytes – since that’s where most of the fancy stuff was found: graphics to adjust levels of electrolytes across membranes with adjustable resistance, etc. I found some of it rather difficult to follow, and the material on length constant and time constant was far too brief. It’s possible I struggled because I was less interested in this particular area. Most neuroresearch, of course, measures electrical activity, so it’s appropriate that it’s emphasized.

In this segment there was even an optional do-it-yourself lab for “Recording and stimulating a nerve.” Materials required included a spiker box, stimulation cable, computer and smartphone, and a cockroach. Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that one.

The second course in the series moved up a level to interneuron communication via neurotransmitters and modulators, synapses, and excitation/inhibition patterns. Included were several interesting “Extras”, interviews with researchers looking at such topics as optogenetics – using a light-activated channel from algae to stimulate and record neuronal activity – and connectomics, a technique to understand the informational organization of the nervous system.

Part Three was more about structure and pathways in the brain: sensory and motor pathways, as well as the connections between areas that record memories and produce emotional responses. Some of the information – the structure of the lateral geniculate nucleus along the visual pathway, for instance – was extremely detailed and very helpful, while some – the sensory pathways – seemed more of an overview.

Each week’s material consisted of a number of short video lectures with two or three graded Practice Problems following, plus a final exam at the end of each course. Multiple attempts are given for each question in both cases; most of the questions are information-retrieval, the exception being the first course where a fair amount of applying various equations is required.

A great deal of material is covered, and it can be overwhelming for those who haven’t encountered these elements before, but that’s what learning is for. Fun fact: the only neurons that seem to be able to reproduce are located in the olfactory region (smelling) and the hippocampus (memory). No one’s exactly sure what this means yet; it’s possible the memory cells, most replicated in infants, actually destroy memory by “writing over” existing patterns. But why those cells? Why not spinal cord neurons, which might allow function to be regained after devastating injury? The answer will probably be found in evolutionary function; I have no idea what it might be, but I’ll bet it’ll be fascinating.

I find it all fascinating, that what we think and feel and do all boils down to electrical impulses carried by tiny wires. In many cases, particularly in the third course, the consequences of things going awry, despite all the redundancies and plasticity, are covered briefly. Given how complicated the neural system is, it’s kind of amazing things don’t go wrong more often. Yet here we are, still. At least for now.

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