I have a confession to make: I never formally studied neuroscience. Actually, I freely admit this fact to anyone who asks – and the most frequent follow-up question I get is, “Then how did you teach yourself enough about neuroscience to write about it professionally?”
The answer is that I took what’s known as the “brute-force” approach: I searched Google Scholar for every paper containing the keywords I was interested in. I saved and printed every paper that looked worth reading. I sat on my couch with a foot-high stack of papers beside me, and I read every single one. When I came to a word I didn’t know, I looked it up. I kept doing this every night until I fell asleep. And when I came home from the office the next day, I did the same thing all over again. Rinse-and-repeat for a year or more, and you’ll end up with a working knowledge of just about any subject that fascinates you.
But these days, there’s a much easier way to go about it.
In just the past few years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have grown by leaps and bounds. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, these courses are called “massive” because thousands of people all over the world take them at the same time; “open” because anyone with an internet connection can take them; and “online” because they’re available on the web.)
The first generation of MOOCs were, to be frank, pretty lame. They usually consisted of lecture notes without any videos of the lectures, quizzes and tests that you had to grade yourself, and reading lists of books that weren’t available in a digital format. If you bought the books, studied the lecture notes, and graded your own tests, you might emerge with the same knowledge you’d have gotten from the real course. But hardly anyone wanted to attempt this.
Today’s MOOCs, on the other hand, are a whole different breed. Websites like Coursera have contracted real professors to administer the courses, provide lecture videos, oversee grading of quizzes and tests, and ensure that students actually get something comparable to a university course. MOOCs like these still have a long way to go (there’s still a relative lack of upper-level courses, for one thing), but if you’ve never taken a MOOC before – or if you were disappointed with the first generation of MOOCs – now’s the time to give it a shot.
And the best part is, all these courses are free.
Fundamentals of Neuroscience
Looking for a neuroscience “boot camp” course? This is it. Harvard’s high-powered neuroscience MOOC is designed to give you an Ivy-League introduction to all the major areas of neuroscience – complete with lecture videos, quizzes, and other interactive assignments – all for the very reasonable price of free. It’s divided into a series of sections, each covering specific topics – from the biology of neurons all the way up to neuropsychology and connectomics. Each lesson is divided into specific sub-sections, and every sub-section is backed up with videos, case studies, hands-on projects, and a wide variety of other activities designed to keep you engaged and learning. The entire track will take you a few months to complete (because these courses all operate on set schedules), but by the time you’re done, you’ll have plenty of background knowledge to launch a career in neuroscience journalism, or to sign up for some more advanced classes and start working your way toward a career in neuroscience research.
University of Chicago:
Understanding the Brain
Subtitled, “The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” this 10-week course is focused on giving you a relatively quick introduction to topics like perception, action, neurobiology and cognition. Through video lectures and online quizzes, you’ll learn about how neurons work and communicate, and how our brains help us see, hear, and stay on-balance. The class finishes with an introduction to some of the latest theories on how our brains are able to think, and what exactly “thinking” might mean in neurological terms. Meanwhile, you’ll be learning the terminology and concepts used in neuroscience work, so you’ll be able to talk about neuroscientific topics that interest you – and do your own Google research on those topics – a lot more precisely. This course’s length means there isn’t enough time to get really in-depth about any of the topics it covers, but it’ll give you some great jumping-off points and reading recommendations to continue your self-driven education – or even to get some ideas about which university classes to sign up for.
Perception, Action and the Brain
If you’re looking to dive into the neuroscience of perception and behavior, this “specialization pathway” will take you beyond the basics and into the technical details. It’s actually a short series of free courses – a new concept that Coursera is trying out, aiming to address the common criticism that many MOOCs are only basic-level, and don’t offer more advanced specialty topics. But whether you want to get in-depth or just get an introduction to these areas, you can take whichever course (or courses) in the series interest you. If you’re just looking for a run-down of the fundamentals, sign up for the Foundational Neuroscience course. If you’re hungry for more, then continue with the courses on The Brain and Space and Visual Perception – and round out your studies by collaborating with other students on a big Final Project. Along the way, you’ll learn how the brain generates visual representations, how it creates our sense of spatial location, and how to apply your newfound knowledge in academic and real-world settings.
If you’ve already got a background in undergrad biology, this in-depth class will help rocket you up into the wide world of the human nervous system. It starts with a series of lectures on basic neuroanatomy, then dives deeper into the nature of communication between nerve cells, the functioning of sensory and motor systems, and the growth and development of the human brain. The final week even delves into the mysteries of consciousness and cognition, and explores some of the cutting-edge work being done right now to shed light on these strange phenomena. Every week’s video lectures come with a hefty helping of notes, reading recommendations, and hands-on self-study projects – plus a final exam to make sure you’ve soaked up all the essentials. Although this isn’t an ideal class for absolute neuroscience beginners, it’s a great way to make sure you’ve got the basics down before you plunge ahead into more specialized studies.
Drugs and the Brain
Just about every neuroscience researcher has at least a little interest in drugs. How is it, exactly, a tiny bit of a certain chemical can alter our thoughts, perceptions and desires so profoundly? That’s just one of the questions that this seven-week course aims to answer. You’ll start with introductions to neurotransmitter chemicals, and move on to the chemical underpinnings of many drugs’ effects. Along the way, you’ll also dig into the neuropsychology of drug addiction, as well as the many ways that certain drugs can be beneficial for mental health – as long as we use them wisely. You’ll want to brush up on your chemistry before you wade into this one – but if you’re thrilled at the prospect of detailed discussions of ion channels, electrokinetics and catabolism, this is definitely the right class for you. It doesn’t hold back on the tech talk – but if you’re a serious aspiring student of neuropharmacology, that may be exactly what you’ve been searching for.
University of Washington:
This free class is not for the faint of heart. It’s heavy on the math and programming, and the lectures can be pretty dry. But if you feel up to doing some differential calculus and learning MatLab, this class will put you right on the front lines of neural network analysis, and teach you the hands-on skills you’ll need to conduct your own original neuroscientific data analysis research. The class is co-taught by Rajesh Rao, one of the neuroscientists who recently made headlines as the co-inventor of a brain-to-brain interface that transmits human muscle movement impulses over a wi-fi connection. Like I said, Rao and his co-teachers won’t pull any punches – you’ll be working with some fairly advanced calculus and programming concepts at a rapid pace, and your teachers and classmates are going to assume that you’re already familiar with a lot of the basics. But if you think you’re ready to take your neuro knowledge to the next level and find out how research gets done in an actual computational neuroscience lab, this class is a great way to test your mettle.
And there you have it: The Connectome’s picks for the most helpful open neuroscience courses available online. What did we miss? Jump into the comments and let us know – we’ll probably be happy to add your suggestion to the list.