Neuroscience Methods

Neuroanatomy, neuropharmacology, neurophysiology...techniques, methods and procedures. Neuroscientists use a variety of techniques from the fields of chemistry, physiology, psychology and anatomy. The following table lists some of the methods that neuroscientists use in their daily work.

Tools of the Trade
Neuroscience Tools of the Trade: instruments and devices used in a neuroscience laboratory.

Behavioral Neuroscience
Techniques to study the neural basis of behavior.
MethodDescription
Stereotaxic Surgery Surgery performed using an atlas showing the location of brain areas in 3 planes of space. Used to place recording or stimulating electrodes or to destroy a particular part of the brain.
Lesion Production Destruction of a particular part of the brain. Lesions can be produced by passing electrical current (AC or DC) through an electrode or with chemicals (such as kainic acid or 6-hydroxydopamine) that destroy neurons. A lesion can also be made surgically by cutting a tract or by suction removal of part of the brain. A reversible lesion can be made by cooling (then rewarming) part of the brain or by injecting drugs (such as lidocaine).
Electrical Brain Stimulation Stimulation of a brain area by passing electrical current through an electrode.
Microinjection Injection of a small quantities of drug or neurotransmitter into a specific area of the brain.

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Neuroanatomy
Techniques to study the structure of the nervous system.

MethodDescriptionExamples
Cell Body Staining Coloring neurons to see individual neurons (nerve cells) or groups of neurons. Cresyl violet stain; neutral red stain; Golgi stain
Tract (Myelin) Staining Coloring nerve fibers to see pathways. Weil method; Weigert's myelin stain; Marchi stain
Tract Tracing Tracing the projections from one part of the nervous system to another part. Tracing can be retrograde (backwards) or anterograde (forwards). Horseradish peroxidase (HRP) method; fluorescent microspheres; Phaseolus vulgaris-leucoagglutinin (PHA-L) method; Fluoro-Gold; Cholera B-toxin; DiI; tritiated amino acids
Immunocytochemistry Localizing particular chemicals (neurotransmitters, proteins) within particular neurons.
In situ hybridization Localizing the synthesis of proteins or peptides in neurons.
c-Fos c-Fos is a protein product of an immediate-early gene and has been used as a marker for brain areas activated by different stimuli. To see the c-Fos, immunocytochemical techniques must be used.
Deoxyglucose Uptake Neurons that are active use glucose. By injecting deoxyglucose, the cells that use glucose also take up the deoxyglucose. However, the deoxyglucose is not degraded by enzymes in the neurons so it stays inside the neuron. By radioactively labeling the deoxyglucose, neuroscientist can find out what areas of the brain are active during specific behaviors or events.
Here is an example of the tract tracing method using a chemical called horseradish peroxidase (HRP). Using a small syringe, neuroscientists place HRP a small area of the brain. Neurons that project to this area will "pick up" the HRP and transport it back to the cell body (the soma). This is a form of retrograde transport because it determines what areas of the brain connect with other areas of the brain by transporting material "backwards" from the terminal of the neuron to the cell body.

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Neurophysiology
Techniques to understand the function of the nervous system.

MethodDescription
Patch Clamp Technique Recording current flow from single ion channels of a neuron.
Intracellular Recording Electrical recording from INSIDE of a single neuron.
Extracellular Recording Electrical recording from outside of a single (or a few) neuron.
Mass Unit Recording Electrical recording from outside of a group of neurons.
Evoked Potentials Electrical activity of the brain synchronized to an event.
Electroencephalography (EEG) Electrical activity of the brain recorded with scalp or brain electrodes.

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Neuropharmacology
Techniques to understand the chemistry of the nervous system.

MethodDescription
Microiontophoresis Injection of small quantities of chemicals (drugs, neurotransmitter) into neural tissue by passing electrical current.

BACK TO: Exploring the Nervous System Table of Contents

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