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What is Cognitive Neuroscience and Why is it Important?

Introduction: Defining cognitive neuroscience


Have you ever wondered what the origin of your thoughts and feelings are? Cognitive neuroscience is the study of how the brain enables the mind, studying the physical structure and processes of the brain to understand the many layers of the mind. It is a rapidly evolving field dedicated to investigating the neural mechanisms underlying cognitive processes: perception, memory, emotion, language, selective attention and consciousness.



How is Cognitive Neuroscience related to Psychology?


Cognitive neuroscience and psychology are closely related fields, both seeking the understanding of the workings of the mind and brain. Cognitive neuroscience focuses mainly on the study of brain function and cognitive processes, whereas psychology is the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes. They both use experiments and brain imaging techniques to study these processes. Overall, these fields provide a more comprehensive understanding of how the brain and mind work together to produce behaviour and cognition.



Examples of Cognitive Neuroscience

1. Cognitive neuroscience in psychology

A patient who struggles with spatial awareness (has difficulties pinpointing the location of something they hear, feel or see) may seek a doctor to scan their brain for potential damage to the posterior parietal cortex to find the root of the problem.

2. Memory

Cognitive neuroscientists use brain imaging techniques (e.g. fMRI, EEG) to study brain functions: how the brain encodes, stores and retrieves memories. They also study how memory changes with ageing and how memory is affected by brain damage or diseases.

3. Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation, and is associated with brain function and decision making. A past award-winning experiment explored the role of dopamine and how humans need to evaluate opinions, weighing the costs and benefits of different choices before making a final decision that benefits them to survive. When you feel good that you have achieved something, it’s because you have a surge of dopamine in your brain. When we make decisions that result in rewards, the activity level of dopamine neurons increases. This explains why we seek endless new rewards, for example a position, promotion, degree, grade etc. A higher number of rewards result in a higher chance of survival, therefore decision-making is an example of cognitive neuroscience and is a biological process that influences cognitive processes.


How Cognitive Neuroscience affects Mental Health


Cognitive neuroscience is related to mental health in several ways and has contributed greatly to the understanding of the neural basis of mental health and mental illnesses, and how to focus the research and treatment. The insights provided by cognitive neuroscience research have the potential to improve our ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health disorders, as cognitive processes such as perception, attention, decision-making and emotion are critical for mental health and wellbeing. Cognitive neuroscience has also contributed to the development of new treatments for mental health disorders, as it provides a better understanding of mental health and enables us to observe the relationships between treatment parameters and distinct clinical and functional improvements. Cognitive neuroscience research has also helped to develop new methods for diagnosing and monitoring mental health disorders such as depression. As mentioned above, brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and EEG can be used to identify patterns of brain activity that are associated with specific mental health disorders, and to monitor the effects of treatments and track changes in brain function over a period of time. Individuals with depression have reduced activity in certain brain regions involved in emotional processing and mood regulation. Similarly, individuals with anxiety disorders have altered patterns of brain activity during fear processing.



Examples of using Cognitive Neuroscience to Improve Mental Health

The development of several interventions in cognitive neuroscience has contributed to improving mental health.

  1. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): a brain stimulation technique in treating depression and other mental health disorders. Cognitive neuroscience is also helpful for identifying the new targets for drug developments, such as the glutamate system, which has been implicated in several mental health disorders.

  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy in treating a range of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress order (PTSD). Through identifying and challenging these negative thoughts, individuals are made to shift their thinking patterns and perspective of seeing things, as CBT is based on the idea that negative thought and beliefs can contribute to mental health symptoms.


Practical Applications of Cognitive Neuroscience

  • Providing help coping with mental disorders

  • Improving on decision-making and making better decisions

  • Recovering from brain injury

  • Structuring educational curricula to enhance learning


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