A Clinical Approach to the Human Brain

Course Info

Course Number/Code: HST.422J (Fall 2006)
Course Title: A Clinical Approach to the Human Brain
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Department: Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Course Instructor(s): Prof. Thomas Byrne
Course Introduction:
Syllabus Goals and Overview of Course

Taught by a neurologist, the course is designed to provide an understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease, and is intended for both the Brain and Cognitive Sciences major and the non-Brain and Cognitive Sciences major. Knowledge of how the human brain works is important for all citizens, and the lessons to be learned have enormous implications for public policy makers and educators.

Many new technologies allow us to map brain function. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows brain regions that are active when we see, move a finger, read, experience emotion or perform mental arithmetic. The course will explore how fMRI reveals that visual and spatial information, such as pictures, are stored on the right side of the brain and words are stored on the left. We will study how fMRI is being used in dyslexia and other brain disorders to assess organization of the brain in disease and its reorganization following treatment.

During "critical periods" in development, appropriate activity is required for the acquisition of mature brain circuitry and function. For example, a child born with a "lazy," or strabismic, eye must be forced to use that eye, either by surgical correction of the eye position or by patching the good eye, before about 8 years of age or the strabismic eye will never develop normal vision. Along similar lines, to speak a language with a native accent, the language must be learned before puberty. These examples of how the brain "wires" itself during critical periods of "activity-dependent" development will be discussed as outlined in the syllabus.

Of course, beyond childhood we can still learn new information and skills. The course will review imaging studies that reveal how the organization of the brain is modified by training and rehearsal. For example, we will discuss experiments showing that the area of brain that controls finger movements and sensations is reorganized in musicians who rehearse intensively. Interestingly, even mental rehearsing of keyboard instruments can lead to the reorganization of brain circuits in the premotor area of the brain, which is the site where planning of motor activities are maintained. Such mental rehearsing is routinely done by musicians (and athletes alike) because it can give rise to an improvement in performance.

The course will cover the regional anatomy of the brain and provide an introduction to the cellular function of neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters. Commonly used drugs that alter brain function can be understood through a knowledge of neurotransmitters. Along similar lines, common diseases that illustrate normal brain function will be discussed. Experimental animal studies that reveal how the brain works will be reviewed.

The primary text for the course will be Neuroscience, edited by Dale Purves, et al. Throughout the seminar we will discuss clinical cases from Dr. Byrne's experience that illustrate brain function; in addition, articles from the scientific literature will be discussed in each class.

Course Requirements

Each student is required to present at least one paper to the class. The papers will be selected from the asterisked articles in the lectures.

GradingGrading criteria.ACTIVITIESPERCENTAGESTwo Exams60%Final Exam30%Class Participation10%

The class participation portion will be derived as follows: half (5% of final grade) will be determined by the presentation and half (5% of final grade) will be determined by participation in class discussions throughout the term.