The newest unit in my adventure called medical school is Neurosciences. After just three days, I have come to a couple of conclusions.
First, neuroscience is really hard. The content of the class itself is just very challenging. There are many anatomical structures to learn, pathways to memorize, and some fairly abstract concepts that need to be applied in order to really understand what’s going on. The class itself is going to be hard because we don’t take an exam until April, meaning we cover 5 weeks worth of material before taking any sort of evaluation. There is huge potential to fall behind before the test, and there will be too much material to catch back up.
Next, I have started to second guess my speaking skills. I have always thought that the neuron, the fundamental cell of the nervous system, was pronounced “nur-on”. In fact, I have never heard it pronounced any other way until Monday, when 4 separate neurologists called it a “nur-own”. Is this some sort of professional neuroscience thing to mark the pros from the outsiders? What’s going on? We need to ask the teaching staff to address this ASAP. Every time they confidently talk about nurrowns, i feel a little bit like a morrown.
Finally, I have realized that nobody really understands the brain. I don’t mean that we know nothing about it, just that we don’t understand it. Yes, we understand the areas of the brain that process certain information. We know tracts of the spinal cord and the types of sensations they relay. We even know the functions of the brainstem and midbrain. What no one really understands is how all of this happens. Even in “smaller” nuclei in the brain, there are something like a million neurons synapsing together. There is a huge body of scientific knowledge on what a neuron does and how it functions, but a complete lack of explanation as to how a billion neurons together create conscious thought. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, home to all of our higher orders of reasoning, memory, emotion, and thought. It’s amazing, but we still don’t actually understand it.
I was talking about this with my family last weekend. Have you ever seen a 30 second commercial for an antidepressant drug, followed by a full minute of side effects and warnings? It’s because we still don’t get the brain. Compare that drug to, say, an antibiotic. We know exactly how that antibiotic is metabolized, the effect it has on bacteria, side effects on the patient, and certain kinds of infections that can be more easily treated with that drug. An antidepressant is far more complicated. For an SSRI, for instance, we know what it is supposed to do, but this action causes a huge amount of side effects due to its action on the brain and neurotransmitter levels. Why would this drug cause suicidal tendencies in younger patients? Good question.
I really like studying neuroscience because I think humans have awesome brains. We have enormous brains, by the way. Why are babies born so young and relatively helpless? Because otherwise their enormous brains would be too big to squeeze through the birth canal. Our skeleton is designed to support a large skull full of brains, and our metabolism is geared to continually supply our brains with the energy it so desperately demands. The most spectacular part of our brains is the interconnections, or synapses. This is where the magic happens. This is why humans are so fundamentally different than any other animal. The interconnected nature of the brain is the reason we make music, paint pictures, write stories, love, hate, and want things. It’s the reason certain smells can evoke such vivid memories, and it’s the reason we can even undertake an effort to learn about our own amazing cognitive ability.
The best analogy for the enormous complexity of our brain is outer space. Even the word we use to describe it fails miserably to convey the entirety of what it actually is. Calling the universe space is like calling the ocean wet. Astronomers are still discovering more planets and stars in our very own galaxy, which is sort of like finding more furniture in your living room when set to the scale of the universe. Small wonder we don’t fully understand our own brains. I wonder if we even can. Even with the elaborate supercomputer sitting in my head (ok, more like an iPhone. Or a fax machine), I will never be able to actually understand how big the Earth is, and I will definitely fall far short of grasping the size of the solar system or galaxy. I don’t think it can be done, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Who knows, it could be my generation of neurologists that discovers ways of treating and curing Alzheimer’s disease. What’s the saying about effort? Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
Time for me to wrap this up for the night. Thanks for reading! If you have read this far, you may be interested to know I will have a guest post featured on the Student Doctor Network next week. I am very appreciative of this opportunity to reach a wider audience. Also, their forums are incredibly helpful for any pre-meds who haven’t found their way over there yet. Just saying.