Neurobiology

Professor John E. Dowling, Head Tutor

Neurobiology is the science of how the nervous system organizes behavior. This singular question has spawned a field of study with remarkable vertical range. It investigates phenomena on vastly different scales, from molecules to societies, and draws on many of the classical disciplines for experimental tools and explanatory frameworks.

For example, the function of an individual nerve cell is largely determined by channel and receptor proteins in the cell membrane. These are the domains of biochemistry and biophysics. Specialized neural structures like the synapse, and the unique nerve cell shapes that allow for a vast number of connections with other neurons are the province of cell biology. At the level of neural circuits, where many thousands of neurons interact, collective phenomena arise that require a different approach. Contributions from physics and engineering have been successful here, by providing tools to observe the brain’s activity patterns, and analysis methods to understand them. On the scale of the entire organism, approaches from psychology, genetics, and behavioral biology are essential to investigate the rules and patterns of behavior and ultimately to link them to biological brain functions. Along the way, one is forced to contemplate how complex nervous systems can arise, questions that lie in the domain of evolutionary and developmental biology. Finally, there are increasing efforts in computer science to draw on insights from neurobiology in making machines that mimic functions of the brain.

The neurobiology concentration has its natural hub in the life sciences but emphasizes a solid grounding in other relevant fields. The only prerequisite for students entering this concentration is an intense curiosity about how the brain works. By following this single-minded focus, the student will in fact obtain a generalist education in the natural sciences. This provides a broad preparation for advanced studies in any of the life sciences or medicine.

The typical curriculum begins with a series of foundation courses in life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics. A central course on neurobiology of behavior, Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) 80, then lays out the corpus of knowledge and how it connects to other disciplines. In elective courses, students explore specific areas more deeply. Neuroscience is also one of the most vibrant fields of research at Harvard, and advanced students will have many opportunities for hands-on laboratory experience and independent research projects.

We also offer a Mind, Brain, and Behavior honors track. This track allows students to look beyond the biology of the brain and to see how neurobiology impacts other disciplines (i.e., anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology) and vice versa.

REQUIREMENTS
Basic Requirements: 13 half-courses

  1. Required courses:

    1. Eight half-courses in biology and neuroscience:

      1. Life Sciences 1a (or Life and Physical Sciences A) and Life Sciences 1b.

      2. One half-course chosen from Life Sciences 2, MCB 52, MCB 54, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology 53.

      3. MCB 80.

      4. Organismic and Evolutionary Biology 57.

      5. Three advanced half-courses in neurobiology (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website; at least one of these courses should be MCB 105 or MCB 115).

    2. Five half-courses in related fields:

      1. Three half-courses in physical sciences (Ordinarily these courses include Physical Sciences 1, 2, and 3; Chemistry 17, 20, 27, 30, 40, and 60; and the Physics 11 series and Physics 15 series).

      2. Two half-courses in mathematics (above the level of Math 1a; ordinarily these courses include Math 1b, Math 19 series, Math 21 series). Students who place into and successfully complete Math 19a (recommended) or higher need to complete one math course; this does not reduce the total number of courses for the concentration.

  2. Other Information:

    1. Advanced Placement: Ordinarily the Neurobiology concentration does not give AP credit.

    2. Pass/Fail: All requirements for the concentration must be taken for a letter grade.

    3. Tutorials: Different Neurobiology 95hf courses are offered each year. These tutorials are considered advanced Neurobiology courses. Neurobiology 95hf courses (half-course throughout the year) cannot be divided or combined for credit. Tutorial seminars that are offered in 2009-10 are listed in the Courses of Instruction.

Requirements for Honors Eligibility:
14 half-courses

  1. Required courses:

    1. Same as Basic Requirements 1a & 1b.

    2. Half-course in independent research (Neurobiology 98r). No more than two supervised research half-courses may be taken for concentration credit. Any supervised research courses undertaken with mentors outside of MCB or the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology should be co-sponsored by a Neurobiology concentration faculty member (your faculty adviser assumes this role by default, unless someone more suitable can be found), who is responsible for assigning the course grade in consultation with your mentor.

  2. Tutorial: Neurobiology 95hf, recommended but not required (see 3c above).

  3. Thesis: Required for Highest Honors in Field. Optional for award of Honors or High Honors in Field. The thesis is based on original research in neurobiology and is ordinarily conducted in the laboratory. Students may also take Neurobiology 99, the thesis-writing tutorial, but it is not required. Theses undertaken with mentors outside of MCB or the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology should be co-sponsored by a Neurobiology faculty member (your faculty adviser assumes this role by default unless someone more suitable can be found). All students planning to submit a senior thesis must submit a short thesis proposal. The thesis proposal is usually submitted during the spring term of junior year. The thesis proposal form is available at the concentration website. Members of the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology evaluate theses based on input from the mentor and other readers.

Requirements for Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track:
16 half-courses (Honors Only Track)

  1. Required courses:

    1. Same as Basic Requirements, except as noted below in 1b, 1c, and 3.

    2. Two half-courses in physical sciences (Ordinarily these courses include Physical Sciences 1, 2, and 3; Chemistry 17, 20, 27, 30, 40, and 60; and the Physics 11 series and Physics 15 series).

    3. Two advanced half-courses in neurobiology (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website).

    4. Half-course in independent research (Neurobiology 98r). No more than two supervised research half-courses may be taken for concentration credit. Any supervised research courses undertaken with mentors outside of MCB or the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology should be co-sponsored by a Neurobiology concentration faculty member (your faculty adviser assumes this role by default, unless someone more suitable can be found), who is responsible for assigning the course grade in consultation with your mentor.

    5. Neurobiology 99 (Honors Thesis Tutorial).

    6. Either Science of Living Systems 20 or an approved Mind, Brain, and Behavior half-course elective chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website.  Not all of the courses listed in the Mind, Brain, and Behavior chapter of the Courses of Instruction are appropriate MBB electives for Neurobiology concentrators.

    7. An additional Mind, Brain, and Behavior designated half-course chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website.

  2. Seminar in Mind/Brain/Behavior: Half course, junior year (recommended). Letter-graded. Select one from a list on the concentration website that varies each year.

  3. Thesis: Required (see section 3 in Honors requirements).

  4. Other information: Students pursing the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track are also expected to participate in the University-wide Mind, Brain, and Behavior research milieu, including the all-day MBB junior symposium and a non-credit senior year seminar for Mind, Brain, and Behavior thesis writers. Students are encouraged to join the student organization Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior (HSMBB).

ADVISING

Dr.Tamily Weissman, concentration adviser for Neurobiology, is available to provide guidance to concentrators and pre-concentrators on course selection, laboratory research, and fulfilling concentration requirements. Visit lifescience.fas.harvard.edu or contact Dr. Weissman (BioLabs Room 1082a, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-9908, tamily@mcb.harvard.edu) for more information. The head tutor and members of the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology also provide mentoring on academic and career issues.

For up-to-date information on advising in Neurobiology, please see the Advising Programs Office website.

HOW TO FIND OUT MORE

Head tutor of Neurobiology: Professor John Dowling, BioLabs Room 2081, 16 Divinity Ave, 617-495-2245. Concentration adviser: Dr. Tamily Weissman, BioLabs 1082a, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-9908, tamily@mcb.harvard.edu. More information about the Neurobiology concentration can also be found at lifescience.fas.harvard.edu/.

CORE AND GENERAL EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS

Non-exempt areas:

Exempt areas:

Foreign Cultures

Quantitative Reasoning

†Historical Study A

Science A

†Historical Study B

Science B

†Literature and Arts A

ONE of the areas marked †.

Literature and Arts B

 

†Literature and Arts C

 

Moral Reasoning

 

Social Analysis

 

For more information on fulfilling the Core requirement, see the Core Curriculum Requirement.

All students—regardless of concentration—planning to graduate under the requirements of the Program in General Education must complete one letter-graded course in each of the eight categories in General Education. The Class of 2013 is the first to enter the College under these requirements. Students who entered Harvard College in September 2008 or earlier are expected to fulfill the requirements of the Core Curriculum, but will be permitted to switch to the Program in General Education if such a change is possible and advisable given their overall schedule and plan of study. For more information on the requirements of the Program in General Education and the possibility of switching to it, please see The Program in General Education in Chapter 2 and the General Education website.

ENROLLMENT STATISTICS

Number of Concentrators as of December

Concentrators

2006

2007

2008

*Neurobiology

52

111

157

*Neurobiology does not participate in joint concentrations.