A new degree program in biological neuroscience at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute explores the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. The major, which was recently approved by the New York State Education Department, will be offered beginning in the spring 2020 semester through the Rensselaer Department of Biological Sciences.

The new program provides both an overview and an in-depth study of neuroscience, with an option for a dual degree in biological neuroscience and psychological science that examines the brain on multiple levels of analysis.

“Increasingly sophisticated research techniques are fueling a rapid expansion in our understanding of the brain, and with that, an increasing demand for that knowledge. These new insights open the door to new medical interventions for neurodegenerative diseases and breakthroughs in neurophysiological research. Such advances are tightly linked with developments in health-care informatics, data science, and computer science,” said Curt Breneman, dean of the Rensselaer School of Science. “The study of neuroscience has become an important route to success across many diverse career paths, and we are pleased to offer this program to our students.”

The curriculum helps students build a solid foundation in the life sciences, chemistry, physics, and math. The upper-level courses From Neuron to Behavior and Cellular Neuroscience give an in-depth experience to familiarize students with the molecular tools that are used in modern neuroscience research.

“Neuroscience is a highly interdisciplinary field. It ranges from understanding how individual molecules behave inside neurons, all the way to behavior of complex organisms, such as humans. This broad spectrum is an excellent match for how we work at Rensselaer,” said Susan Gilbert, head of the Department of Biological Sciences. “Combining neuroscience courses with a group of core biological science courses offers our students a strong foundation and a very specialized deep dive in biological neuroscience.”

Both biological neuroscience and the dual degree are a natural fit for the technological environment at Rensselaer, where research into the brain and nervous system spans a broad spectrum of disciplines. Engineers map brain circuits, biomedical engineers use hormones to repair injury, biologists and lighting experts track the pervasive influence of circadian rhythms, and cognitive scientists study how the brain addresses mental and physical tasks.

The dual degree in biological neuroscience and psychological science combines study of the brain on the molecular and cellular levels with an understanding of the brain at the functional and behavioral level, said Brett Fajen, professor of cognitive science and director of the Perception and Action Lab. The dual major also develops complementary skills with the combination — exposing students to lab work, quantitative methods, and computer programming — and opens more career opportunities.

“It’s one thing to understand the processes that happen in the brain at the molecular and cellular level. It’s equally important to understand how those processes affect behavior, memory, cognition, emotion — how all those things are affected by underlying changes in the brain,” Fajen said. “The student who understands both perspectives can create bridges across those levels and will be a better doctor or neuropsychologist, or will develop technology that assists people with neurological impairments or conditions.”