York launches a graduate diploma program in neuroscience

How do we think, process emotions and develop memories? How do we see and move in three-dimensional space? What does learning another language do to stave off dementia in later years? What causes autism?

The human brain and nervous system has for centuries fascinated researchers. Neuroscience – the field that is devoted to the scientific study of the brain and nervous system – is at the heart of a new Neuroscience Diploma Program at York University. The program draws on York’s existing expertise in neuroscience and will offer graduate students an opportunity to focus their studies and plumb the depths of the brain and nervous system.

Right: Professor Doug Crawford, Canada Research Chair in Visuomotor Neuroscience, is the coordinator of the new diploma program in neuroscience

Aside from understanding how the brain and nervous system work, there are practical applications in neuroscience. York’s greatest strengths in neuroscience are in systems/cognitive research, with applications to neurology, rehabilitation and neuropsychology. Neuroscientists in York’s Centre for Vision Research are studying visual perception – for example, how we process faces and scenes in our brains, and where this occurs – as well as visual-motor control such as eye-hand coordination. Researchers at York are also probing cognition and neuropsychology, examining the neural mechanisms underlying schizophrenia, or how bilingualism affects cognitive development and scholastic performance. Some York psychologists are studying topics such as the neural basis of empathy and personality, part of the new field of social cognitive neuroscience.

Students in the new diploma program will also learn about the myriad of diseases that affect the brain and nervous system. "There are more than one billion people in the world with problems with the central nervous system, including Parkinson’s disease, dementia, developmental disorders, autism, cerebral palsy, stroke, schizophrenia and many others," says Professor Doug Crawford, Canada Research Chair in Visuomotor Neuroscience and coordinator of the program. "One in three Canadians will be affected at some point in their lives. These diseases aren’t just fatal; they often ruin what should have been the most productive years of your life. Neuroscience research holds out hope to these people."

While brain disease has huge implications for society, it is often the science itself that attracts students to study neuroscience, says Crawford. Students clearly are interested in the rapidly-growing field, he says; many York graduate students are already conducting research in it. However, the new diploma program, which will begin in September, will give them a more broad-based, interdisciplinary education in neuroscience while they complete master’s and PhD degrees in biology, kinesiology & health sciences and psychology.

York University has more than 30 neuroscience faculty members. These investigators use diverse approaches to neuroscience, including computational modeling, event-related potentials, brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetic resonance imaging & positron emission tomography), animal neurophysiology, psychophysics, kinematics and molecular and cellular techniques, among many other techniques.

Left: Researching the connection between vision and movement

The new neuroscience graduate program was created by an interdepartmental committee led by Crawford and Professor Barry Fowler of the School of Kinesiology & Health Sciences, Faculty of Health.

"Students are fascinated with neuroscience because it affects everything about us, from psychology, to biology to physical health," says Crawford. "The brain completely controls our bodies – our muscles, heartbeat, breathing, even hormone – everything is under the control of the brain."

Graduate students who complete the diploma program will take their knowledge about neuroscience into careers as doctors and dentists, therapists and researchers, and may even apply what they learn to the world of computers, Crawford says, because the human brain is still the world’s most powerful computer.

For further information on this program, see the Neuroscience at York Web site.