Washington State University

Neuroscience Program

Programs in Neuroscience


Undergraduate Program       
Graduate Neuroscience Program

Neuroscience defined

Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. Each day, neuroscientists are unraveling the mysteries of the human brain, answering questions such as: What is the mind? Why do we feel emotions? How do we learn, remember, and process information? What are the underlying causes of neurological and psychiatric disorders?

Neuroscientists investigate the molecular and cellular levels of the nervous system; the systems within the brain, such as vision and hearing; and behavior produced by the brain.

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This research provides the basis for understanding the medical fields concerned with treating nervous system disorders. These medical specialties include neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and ophthalmology.

Neuroscientists have made enormous strides in understanding our most mystifying organ and treating disorders of the brain and nervous system that affect an estimated 50 million Americans each year. Stroke, spinal cord injury, chronic pain, learning disabilities, depression - these are but a few of the areas being addressed by neuroscientists.

Neuroscience research includes the following:

  • Basic research in neurochemistry, neurogenetics, neuropathology, and other fundamental neurosciences, to identify the secrets of the brain and nervous system opening the door to new clinical opportunities.
  • Applied research to understand the brain's control of behavior, mood and innate creativity, and clinical trials to develop and bring to the market effective therapeutics for the treatment of neurological diseases, including research on the availability, access, use, and costs of mental health care and further development of promising model programs and treatments.
  • Research efforts in the genetic basis of neurological disorders to address the increasing evidence of the genetic basis for many diseases.
  • Mechanisms of repair to identify how the brain restores itself after being damaged and to further explore the fundamental neurobiology of the normal nervous system.
  • Training of research scientists and clinicians in the field of neuroscience, to develop the basis for tomorrow's research.

Statistics Regarding Neurological Diseases And Disorders

  • 50 million Americans have a permanent, neurological disability that limits their daily activities.
  • 1 in 3 Americans will experience some form of mental disorder at some point in their lives, and more people are hospitalized with neuropsychiatric disorders than any other disease.
  • 18 million Americans suffer from depression. Disability from depression exceeds that of diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal, and lung diseases, and costs $43.7 billion annually.
  • More than 1 in 20 Americans have developmental disorders of the nervous system, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, mental retardation, and learning disorders. Health care associated with these disorders costs $30 billion annually.
  • 9 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are affected by a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder; only one third of them get treatment.
  • 4 million older Americans suffer from Alzheimer's Disease at a cost of $100 billion each year, primarily from nursing home and other costs of long term care.
  • 3 million incidences of stroke are reported each year at a cost of $30 billion. 1,200 Americans are new stroke victims every day; 1/3 of these die and 1/3 are permanently disabled.
  • 3 million Americans are affected by panic disorders during their lifetimes. The suicide rate for these individuals is 20 times that of the general population.
  • 2 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia, the most chronic and disabling of mental illnesses. The cost for treatment is $32.5 billion annually. Approximately 300,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
  • 1 million Americans suffer from genetic disorders resulting in brain and nerve damage. More than 1000 of these genetic disorders have been identified, many of which result in disability or death.
  • 1 million cases of traumatic head injury are reported each year, resulting in 100,000 deaths and health costs of $25 billion.
  • 500,000 Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease incurring health costs of $6 billion annually.
  • 250,000 cases of traumatic spinal cord injury are reported each year at a cost of $10 billion annually.
  • 40,000 Americans are stricken with brain tumors each year, resulting in paralysis or death.
  • 25,000 Americans are afflicted with Huntington's Disease and another 125,000 are at risk.
  • 2 million people suffer from nerve and muscle disorders, such as Lou Gehrig's Disease and nerve damage associated with diabetes.
  • Each year, addiction to tobacco and illicit drugs kills more than 400,000 people. An understanding of the underlying neurobiological causes of addiction is leading to more effective treatments.
  • 14 million adult Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Costs associated with these disorders are $98.6 billion annually.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation. FAS costs are estimated at $2 billion per year in the United States.
  • The retina of the eye is also part of the brain; for researchers, it is the most accessible part of the brain. Retinal tissue is full of nerve cells essential for vision.
  • By the year 2030, an estimated 6.3 million Americans will have some form of macular degeneration, a disease that destroys the center of the retina and has no effective treatment in most cases. Blindness or vision loss are the result.
  • More than 100,000 Americans have retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that destroys specific nerve cells in the retina. Most people with retinitis pigmentosa are blind by the age of 40.

Economic Burden of Brain Diseases and Disorders

  • Brain-related diseases and injuries are estimated to exceed over half a trillion dollars a year in health care, lost productivity and other economic costs.
  • Brain-related disorders account for the majority of our nation's long term care costs, and, when combined with psychiatric disorders, account for more hospitalization and prolonged care than almost all other diseases combined.
  • Federal disability payments attributed to severe mental illnesses amount to $14 billion annually, 25 percent of total payments.
  • Eye diseases and vision disorders are expensive. Each year, society pays $38.4 billion in direct and indirect costs.

Potential Savings From Brain Research

  • A five year delay in the on-set of Alzheimer's Disease could cut health care spending by as much as $50 billion annually.
  • A five year delay in the on-set of stroke could save $15 billion annually.
  • A five year delay in the on-set of Parkinson's Disease could save as much as $3 billion each year in health care costs.

Economic Benefits of Biomedical Research

  • NIH research helps support skilled jobs both in NIH-supported laboratories and in the many U.S. companies that provide materials and instruments used in research.
  • Successes in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are directly related to NIH support of clinical and especially laboratory research. In 1994, the 1,311 U.S. biotechnology firms employed 103,000 people and generated $11.2 billion in revenues.
  • The top 15 U.S. pharmaceutical industries employ more than 350,000 people and earn profits of $13.3 billion on sales of $84.8 billion.

Recent Discoveries/Opportunities in Brain Research

  • Gene therapy may lead to treatment for Alzheimer's - Based on a study involving primates, scientists may soon be able to employ genetic engineering to treat such devastating human diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Studies reveal that a substance called human nerve growth factor, a naturally occurring protein, has beneficial effects on brain cells.
  • When genetically engineered growth factor-producing cells were injected into the brains of monkeys, deterioration was reversed in up to 92 percent of diseased brain cells.
  • Nerve cell grafts may repair spinal cord injury - NIH-funded scientists recently discovered a group of proteins named netrins that act as long-range guidance signals for sprouting nerve cells during development. Information about how netrins work to guide new nerve cell projections may lead to treatments for regenerating nerves after injury and refined methods of nerve grafting and transplantation.
  • Parkinson's advance - Studies of a procedure called pallidotomy, which destroys overactive neurons in a brain region called the globus pallidus, show that many patients improve significantly following treatment. One new study shows a marked reduction in rigidity and paralysis, improved motor responses to Parkinson's drugs, and disappearance of uncontrolled movements following pallidotomy. The procedure is now being tested in an NIH sponsored clinical study that should determine which patients are best suited for surgery and how long the benefits of pallidotomy will last.
  • Protein yields clues to Huntington's disease - New studies reveal a protein that binds to abnormal molecules and may lead to the first effective treatment for Huntington's disease.
  • HAP-1 is the first molecule shown to bind to huntingtin, the protein that is damaged in Huntington's disease. While huntingtin is found in many regions of the body, HAP-1 is found only in brain cells affected by the disease. This suggest that it causes the brain damage seen in Huntington's disease and that agents that block it from working may be able to prevent this disorder.
  • Emergency treatment for stroke - Extensive NIH-supported laboratory research on the mechanism of blood clotting contributed to the development of clot-dissolving drugs such as t-PA. This research and its applications already have important implications for stroke. With the brain starved of oxygen and other nutrients, damage follows quickly and often with devastating effect. Researchers now have shown that the clot-dissolving drug t-PA is an effective emergency treatment for strokes when given within 3 hours of initial symptoms.
  • Genes protect against stroke damage - Researchers have also identified several genes that protect nerve cells against death when they are exposed to stress caused by factors such as stroke. Scientists hope to find ways to manipulate these genes to improve nerve cell survival in stroke and degenerative neurological diseases.
  • Synaptic proteins yield clues into muscular dystrophy - Scientists studying how synapses form between nerve and muscle cells have identified a protein called agrin that is secreted by nerve cells and causes clustering of important molecules in the muscle cell. Receptors, or protein docking sites, for agrin are closely related to a molecule called dystroglycan that is linked to several forms of muscular dystrophy. Understanding how agrin and dystroglycan work could help scientists understand why muscle cells die in muscular dystrophy and lead to new treatments for the disease.
  • Altered breathing linked to "crib death" - Researchers have found clues to the early signs of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which may lead to ways of screening infants for risk of SIDS. In these babies, many show altered breathing patterns as early as the first week of life.
  • Deciphering the schizophrenic brain - Using a brain imaging technique called positron emission tomography, or PET, scientists have shown that patients with schizophrenia use as much of their brain to perform a very simple sound discrimination task as normal people do when performing a demanding task. The abnormal mental strategies could result from factors such as abnormal brain wiring. Understanding why they occur will lead to an improved understanding of the disease.
  • Genetic error linked to mental retardation - Recent studies reveal that mutations, or errors, in a gene called L1 cause severe malformations in human brain development that can lead to mental retardation and other abnormalities. Studies of L1's function in the brain may reveal ways of mimicking its protein product in a way that will help individuals suffering from these syndromes. Other research has shown that alcohol, even at moderate amounts, impairs the function of the L1 protein. This mechanism may explain the sever mental impairment seen in fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related birth defects.
  • The brain and blood pressure - Recent studies show that three of eight tiny brain organs called circumventricular organs sense blood-borne hormones and signal the brain to change body functions to maintain normal balances of body fluids and blood pressure. Destruction of these organs, or their connections to the brain, prevents development of hypertension in animal models. They also are thought to underlie development of high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
  • Drug improves learning in elderly - A drug now used for brain injuries has been found to dramatically improve learning in the elderly. Scientists believe it could one day be used to counteract the mental decline that accompanies normal aging. It also shows potential for alleviating certain symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and may help to minimize brain damage caused by stroke or injury.
  • Men's and women's brains work differently - A recent study found activation of different brain regions when males and females performed several tasks involved in reading. In light of a 20 percent rate of reading disabilities spread equally among boys and girls upon entry to school, the research is especially significant because it may help explain why females are better able to compensate for reading difficulties.
  • New treatment helps dyslexics learn language - Computer-generated speech that slows and enhances specific sounds in language can help children with one type of dyslexia advance as much as two years in their language comprehension skills with just one month of training.
  • Researchers believe the training induces permanent changes in the ability to understand spoken and written language. Similar strategies may be effective for other forms of dyslexia and reading disabilities.
  • Children learn native languages in infancy - Recent studies show that infants begin to differentiate between sound in their native language as early as the fourth month of life. The findings may help explain why some infants who have recurring ear infections later have difficulties manipulating language. The studies also suggest that the exaggerated language, or "motherese," that parents use to speak to infants help them learn their native language.
  • Serotonin shortage provokes aggression - Researchers have found that low levels of the brain chemical serotonin lead to increased aggressiveness in healthy men. Similar research found that low levels of serotonin led to increased autistic behavior such as rocking and hitting themselves. These finding have prompted clinical trials of a drug that increases serotonin levels to treat autism. They may lead to new treatments for other potentially violent individuals.
  • New treatment approved for alcoholism - A product of neuroscience research, Naltrexone is the first new medication in 45 years approved for the treatment of alcoholism.
  • Multiple sclerosis treatments - Two forms of the immunosuppressant drug beta interferon have now been approved for the treatment of relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. Beta interferon may actually slow the progression to physical disability and reduce the number of exacerbations. When attacks do occur, they tend to be less severe and shorter in duration. MRI scans, used to chart the course of the disease, indicate that beta interferon lessens the destruction of myelin, the fatty substance surrounding nerves that is damaged in multiple sclerosis.
  • Common drug linked to lowered incidence of cerebral palsy - Treating mothers with an inexpensive and relatively safe drug called magnesium sulfate shortly before they give birth has been linked to a reduced incidence of cerebral palsy (CP) in very low birthweight babies. Low birthweight babies have an increased risk of CP, a movement disorder which causes lifelong disability and suffering for thousands of Americans. An NIH study compared a group of very low birthweight children with moderate or severe CP to a control group of very low birthweight children without the disability. Many more mothers of children in the control group received magnesium sulfate during their pregnancy, suggesting that use of the drug might significantly decrease the incidence of CP.
  • Researchers have identified the genes involved in some retinal diseases -Understanding the mechanisms underlying these diseases may help scientists develop effective treatments, and may provide insight into other disorders that cause nerves throughout the nervous system to degenerate.
  • During strokes, parts of the brain don't get enough oxygen, resulting in disabilities for the victim - Recent studies of the retina show that lack of oxygen triggers a series of events that are toxic to nerve cells. These studies may provide insights into how to protect brain cells from damage caused by strokes.
  • Studies on how to promote regrowth of damaged nerve cells - Scientists are conducting studies on how to promote regrowth of damaged nerve cells in the visual system, and how to prevent degeneration of healthy ones. These studies have applications to other areas of the nervous system as well.
  • The visual centers of the brain are the most widely studied parts of the central nervous system - Scientists have mapped the visual centers, and have identified their functions. By manipulating these areas, researchers have gained a better understanding of critical periods in nerve development.
  • New studies regarding optic neuritis - Multiple sclerosis is a crippling disease of the central nervous system. More than half of the people who develop optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, go on to develop multiple sclerosis. Researchers have found that oral corticosteroid alone - the standard treatment for optic neuritis - is not effective in treating the eye condition, and may increase the risk of future attacks; however, researchers also have found that combined oral and intravenous doses reduce the risk of developing multiple sclerosis in first-time optic neuritis sufferers.

What Does The American Public Think About Medical Research?

A recent Harris poll conducted for the non-profit organization called Research! America showed that:

  • 65 percent of Americans oppose cuts in medical research dollars.
  • 73 percent would pay higher taxes to support more medical research.
  • 61 percent urge Congress to provide tax incentives for private industry to conduct medical research.
  • 60 percent are willing to designate tax refund dollars for medical research.
  • 61 percent would like more information on medical research in the print and broadcast media.

Funding for The National Institutes of Health

Our national investment in the NIH during the past 40 years has produced a wealth of opportunities in basic and clinical science that ultimately will alleviate many of the diseases and disorders afflicting millions worldwide. The historical support of the NIH by Congress and both Republican and Democratic administrations has produced a comprehensive network of scientists and technicians at more than 1,700 institutions across the United States.

We are closer than we have ever been to scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of many diseases and disorders which afflict millions of Americans every day. The pace at which these discoveries proceed is directly related to our federal investment in biomedical research. If we falter in our commitment to basic medical research, numerous opportunities for understanding the basic mechanisms of disease, and the eventual treatments and cures derived from this knowledge will be delayed.

Our continued world leadership in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and health care delivery industries, and the economic benefits from these enterprises are directly affected by our continued strong federal commitment to biomedical research.

Society for Neuroscience

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