I ate lunch today with Mollie, and we talked about different classes that we’ve taken (I’m a course 9 major and she’s a double major in course 9 and course 7). Most of her course 9 classes have been of the cellular/molecular neurobiology type, because that’s her field of interest and the obvious intersection of her two majors. It’s also what a lot of people think of when they think of “brain & cognitive sciences” (the other stereotypical conclusion to which people jump is psychology). My course 9 classes have covered a wider variety of subfields. I decided that I’d summarize them a bit so that prefrosh and incoming frosh can see what the different opportunities are in this field, and, more generally, the sort of classes that are offered at MIT beyond the basic level.
First, there was 9.00 (Intro to Psychology) and 9.01 (Intro to Neuroscience). All course 9 majors take these. They’re pretty self-explanatory. And then, there’s the others (up through the current term), by subfield.
9.09 (Cellular Neurobiology) – This class deals with the structure, biochemistry and biophysics (epecially the electrical properties) of neurons. It goes pretty in depth into stuff like axon electrochemistry. There’s a lot about the different types of ion channels. You will gain a much better understanding of exactly how an action potential works than you ever had before. There’s a heavy focus on experimental procedures (e.g. “How would you separate sodium and potassium current in an action potential?”), and a lot about different neurotransmitters and neurotoxins. Also some material about what different groups of cells do together, like long-term potentiation and depression in the hippocampus.
9.18 (Developmental Neurobiology) – This class teaches you how the development of neural tissue is induced, and how it is determined, molecularly, which cells become which areas of the brain. It also covers how axons are guided along pathways, how synapses are formed, how connections form between different neurons and brain areas, how neural systems are constructed, and how experience shapes the brain.
Pure Cognitive Science
24.900 (Intro to Linguistics) – Not actually a course 9 class, but it fulfills a course 9 requirement. I’m having trouble describing it so I’ll just copy straight from the course catalogue. “Studies what is language and what does knowledge of a language consist of. It asks how do children learn languages and is language unique to humans; why are there many languages; how do languages change; is any language or dialect superior to another; and how are speech and writing related. Context for these and similar questions provided by basic examination of internal organization of sentences, words, and sound systems.” As a final project you do a field study with volunteers who are native speakers of another language.
9.02 (Brain Lab) – As the name indicates, it’s a lab class. You learn and do techniques for experimental neuroanatomy and electrophysiology, and more generally, techniques for studying how the brain works as a complicated system. You study and model the mechanical engineering of the cochlea, and more than you ever wanted to know about the rat barrel cortex. You write MATLAB simulations and programs that will test the orientation-selective motion detector neruons of flies, and learn how to do data analysis. There’s weekly quizzes, three lab reports, and an oral presentation.
9.14 (Brain Structure and Its Origins) – The only real hardcore neuroanatomy class that I know of at MIT, at least for undergrads (I’m not sure if there’s any on the grad level). It’s the architecture of the nervous system, with more weird vocabulary than you can shake a stick at. Most of the lectures deal with structural and functional neuroanatomy, most of the readings deal with evolutionary anatomy. I personally think the evolutionary part is more fun.
9.22 (A Clinical Approach to the Human Brain) – Learn how the brain functions normally and how it functions abnormally. It covers the cellular basis of a lot of brain activities, with a lot of focus on learning and language development. Also, the biological basis for many mental illnesses and learning disorders. You go over case studies of people with specific brain disorders and what was wrong in their brains. fMRI studies of all sorts of things. You learn how neurobiology and neural activity affect emotions, pain, and more.
9.35 (Sensation and Perception) – Really, at least 2/3 of the class is about vision and visual perception, but that’s okay, because vision is fun! If you’re course 6, it counts as a bioelectrical engineering elective. “How senses work and how physical stimuli get transformed into signals in the nervous system.” You get to look at lots of optical illusions and learn why our brain’s algorithms for perception make us perceive these illusions. You learn how signal filters work, both conceptually and mathematically. Applications to areas like machine vision and computer graphics are discussed.
9.URG (Undergraduate Research) – UROP for credit. The term I did it (last term), I worked in a joint Brain & Cognitive Science/Nuclear Engineering lab that was developing novel functional imaging methods. I put together equipment to train rats for the tasks that the functional imaging methods were testing (and trained the rats), ran MATLAB code, built electrodes for rat brains, performed the surgery to put the electrodes in, and did statistical analysis/number-crunching.