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NST Part II Neuroscience modules

Michaelmas Term

Module N1: Developmental Neurobiology
Module organiser: Prof Christine Holt (

This module addresses how cells in an embryo manage to assemble into the sophisticated information-processing system that is the brain.  Much of neural development is now understood, while many fascinating questions remain.  Bill Harris begins by discussing how genetically-encoded information is translated into the elements of neural circuits.  Christine Holt and Geoff Cook then examine how axons navigate to their targets to 'wire up' the nervous system, and Matthias Landgraf discusses how synapses are formed.  Developing circuits are fine-tuned by neuronal and synaptic selection, and John Rogers considers the role of neurotrophic proteins in this process, after which Stephen Eglen analyzes how topographic maps are formed and tuned in the visual pathway. A key system illustrating the principles of neuronal patterning - the cerebral cortex - is reviewed by Bill Harris, and the clinical problems that arise from its defective development are discussed by Geoff Woods. Lucio Vinicius concludes by discussing the factors that underlie recent evolutionary changes in the human brain.

Outside the 24 lectures, additional journal club sessions are offered to both PDN and P2NS students.  The course is best suited for students who have studied some neurobiology in Part IB, either in MVST or in NST, but others will be able to take it if they are prepared to do some preliminary reading.

Module N2: Molecular Neuroscience
Module organiser: Dr Ruth Murrell-Lagnado (

In recent years major advances in molecular biology have given remarkable insight into the basic operational characteristics of neuronal systems at the cellular, membrane, sub-cellular and genomic level.  This module (organised by the Dept. of Pharmacology and shared with that Part II) starts by considering the structure and function of voltage-dependent ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors that play such a fundamental role in electrical signalling and neurotransmission.  It goes on to look at post-receptor intracellular signalling pathways, including calcium mobilisation. Finally, it looks at the architecture of the synapse and the exocytotic machinery of chemical neurotransmission.

This module is organised by the Department of Pharmacology.

Module N3: Control of Action
Module organiser: Dr Steve Edgely (

As captured in Sherrington’s statement ‘to move is all mankind can do, whether in whispering a syllable or in felling a forest’, the control of movement is central to our lives.  The control of movement is diverse and is as delicate and as subtle as the analysis of sensation.  We use the same arm and hand to post a letter, to thread a needle, to pull our bodies up while climbing and to lift a suitcase.  Furthermore, although we use different muscles to write on paper and on a blackboard, our handwriting is very similar in the two cases.  A key concept in the control of movement is the organization of the system as a whole to make the outcome successful.  The motor systems module looks at the key areas in motor systems control in depth to seek an understanding of the key problems and the ways forward in solving them, covering material extending from the circuits that underlay neural information processing to the performance of the movement itself.  The module as a whole focuses particularly on the principles of motor control and also on the experimental evidence as to how specific supraspinal systems (Motor cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia) contribute to the neural implementation of these control principles.  The module is based on lecture series covering the oculomotor system, cerebellum, motor cortex, basal ganglia, and long latency reflex actions. A practical class on oculomotor control is associated with the module.

Module N4: Sensory Transduction
Module organiser: Dr Hugh Matthews (

The process of transduction within individual sensory receptors has consequences for, and imposes limits on, the perception of sensory events.  Considerable advances have been made in recent years in elucidating the means by which primary sensory stimuli are transduced and processed.  The module begins by examining the molecular mechanisms which enable vertebrate photoreceptors to respond with incredible sensitivity to individual photons of light, yet which also allow the cells to recover rapidly and to respond effectively at high light intensities.  This will be followed by consideration of invertebrate phototransduction, which will include the ever-more-widespread roles of TRP channels which were originally discovered in this system.  The modality then shifts to the chemical senses, to discuss transduction and coding in olfactory receptors, which share some fascinating features in common with phototransduction, as well as exhibiting some marked differences.  Coverage of mechanotransduction ranges from the incredibly sensitive mechanisms by which the hair cells in the vertebrate ear respond to sound, and the analogous processes in insects, to the properties of muscle spindles which subserve both reflex responses and conscious proprioception.  These special senses will be contrasted with the molecular and cellular mechanisms responsible for the transduction of pain.

You are also likely to find the module on Central Mechanisms of Sensation & Behaviour (N6) interesting and relevant.

Lent Term

Module N5: Neural Degeneration and Regeneration
Module organiser: Dr John Rogers (

Diseases and injuries of the human brain and spinal cord are tragically resistant to treatment.  This lecture module investigates the cellular causes of these diseases and injuries, the reasons why regeneration does not take place, and the research that is now under way to permit regeneration therapies in the future.  The course begins by discussing how neural damage occurs due to acute ischaemic injury (stroke), after which we consider the molecular genetics underlying neuropsychiatric disorders, and chronic neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's and Huntington's disease. Spinal cord injury leads to lifelong disability; physiological and clinical aspects are covered, and why axon regeneration fails to occur and how it can be promoted experimentally.  Moving on to potential cell grafting therapies, we consider neural grafting particularly in Parkinson's disease, and then explain the nature and potential of neural stem cells.  Glial cells are also vital, and are the focus of demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis; we then discuss the degeneration and possible regeneration of glial cells.

The lecturers will all discuss research which could lead to new therapies, including development of molecular inhibitors, gene therapy, neural grafting, stem cells, and remyelination.  This course is mostly given by researchers from the Clinical School, Vet School, Brain Repair Centre, and Stem Cell Institute.

Module N6: Central Mechanisms of Sensation and Behaviour
Module organiser: Prof Angela Roberts (

The distinction between ‘sensory’ and ‘motor’ has little meaning at the higher levels of the brain.  The purpose of movement is to create sensory stimuli; the purpose of sensory processing is to generate movement.  In this module we look at these higher levels – predominantly but not entirely cortical – from the point of view of trying to understand the transformations between stimuli and responses.  The specific topics covered include the central mechanisms by which both visual and auditory stimuli begin to be encoded in ways that reflect their final purpose – of recognition of possible goals, and location so that actions can be directed towards them.  David Tolhurst discusses the first stages of object recognition by the visual cortex; Simon Laughlin begins the discussion of mechanisms by which sensory information and motor control are integrated.  Daniel Wolpert examines the kinds of computations the brain must perform in order to generate optimal movements despite the pervasive uncertainty in sensory information, while Roger Carpenter dissects the neural mechanisms that underlie how we choose between one possible response and another, and how this relates to the randomness that seems to be built into these higher decision mechanisms.  Wolfram Schultz and Angela Roberts extend these ideas of decision by discussing the role of the limbic and cortical systems subserving reward in determining actions, and the ways in which these systems can become disordered, as for example in addiction.  By the end of the course you should have a better sense of one of the most exciting and active areas of brain research in this decade, that is at the heart of what the brain is all about, and whose success is largely due to taking a firmly quantitative approach to neural modelling.  Those who are interested in more mathematical aspects of neuroscience will find many opportunities for applying them in this module, but the course does not require or expect a particular aptitude for maths.

Module N7: Local Circuits and Neural Networks
Module organiser: Dr David Parker (

Neural networks form the middle level in approaches to understanding the nervous system. They assemble the molecular and cellular components needed to process sensory inputs, perform cognitive functions, and pattern motor outputs. Insight into the organisation and function of networks is thus essential to our understanding of how cellular and synaptic properties influence all aspects of nervous (and other) system function and behaviour.

This module will examine the principles of network function using invertebrate, lower vertebrate, and mammalian model systems. It will outline the requirements that need to be satisfied in order to claim understanding of a network and the extent to which these criteria have been met; highlight the factors that influence network design; outline how integrated cellular and synaptic properties influence network outputs; and illustrate the molecular, anatomical, electrophysiological, and computational techniques used in network analyses.

The central role of networks means that this module can provide general insight that can be linked to modules that focus specifically on molecular and cellular mechanisms, or on sensory, motor, or cognitive functions.

Module N8: Learning, Memory and Cognition
Module organisers: Dr Tim Bussey ( & Dr Lisa Saksida (

This module (organised by the Dept. of Experimental Psychology and shared with that Part II) takes a broad approach to the neural basis of learning, memory and cognition.  The first 15 lectures cover learning and memory, integrating the cellular, systems, and psychological levels.  Topics covered include: amnesia in humans and animals; theories of hippocampal function; computational models of memory; mechanisms of cellular-level consolidation and reconsolidation; the amygdala (emotional memory); the cerebellum; and learning in simple systems such as the invertebrate Aplysia.  The remaining 9 lectures cover higher cognitive functions in humans and monkeys.  Topics covered include higher-level visual cognition, semantic memory, cognitive control of memory and the “executive functions” of the prefrontal cortex.