Neurobiology

Professor Jeff Lichtman, Head Tutor

Neurobiology, the study of the nervous system, is a field of science that investigates the biological mechanisms that underlie behavior as well as how brains process information. To develop a comprehensive understanding, we study the nervous system at every level from the macroscopic (behavior and cognition) to the microscopic (cells and molecules). Consequently, the questions that neurobiologists ask are wide-ranging. For example, how do electrical, chemical, and molecular signals allow neurons to process and transmit information from the environment? What guides the development of the immense number of precise connections in the nervous system? How can the complex signals of many thousands of active neurons be recorded, interpreted, and modeled? What causes the profound behavioral deficits in Alzheimer’s disease or Autism Spectrum Disorders?

To answer these kinds of questions, neurobiologists study a variety of model systems including cultured cells, fruit flies, zebrafish, mice, monkeys, and even humans. Simpler systems allow experimental manipulations (e.g., gene knockouts/knockins, protein over/mis-expression, drug treatments, activity silencing) and invasive recording techniques (e.g., fluorescently labeling cells and proteins, electrically/optically recording neurons and networks, electron microscopy of the synapses and circuits). Studies in humans often focus on characterizing patterns of brain activity during development or disease using non-invasive recording techniques (e.g., fMRI and EEG). Neurobiologists may also use approaches from computer science and mathematics to analyze signals that arise from the brain or to understand the computational properties of neural networks. Thus, the study of neurobiology provides both a broad scientific training and a deep understanding of the biology of the nervous system. Given the diversity of interests in this field, the only prerequisite for students entering this concentration is an intense curiosity about the brain.

The Neurobiology curriculum includes a series of fundamental courses in the life and applied sciences. A central course on the neurobiology of behavior, Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) 80 or 81, lays out the body of knowledge in neurobiology. In advanced elective courses, students explore specific areas of neurobiology more deeply based on their interests. We now list over 40 advanced courses on a range of topics: cells and circuits, physiology, learning and memory, cognitive science, development, genetics, computational modeling, and disease and therapeutics. In addition to the course offerings, neurobiology is one of the most vibrant fields of research at Harvard, and students will have many opportunities for hands-on laboratory experience and independent research projects to complement and deepen their studies.

We offer three tracks within the Neurobiology concentration. The first, the ‘Neurobiology Track’, provides the greatest focus on biology and neurobiology coursework and ensures a solid foundation in the life and physical sciences. For this track, Honors is optional. The second track, the ‘Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track’, allows students to look beyond the biology of the brain and see how other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, economics, computer science, history of science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology) approach the study of the mind. This is an Honors track and requires an undergraduate thesis. The third track, the ‘Computational Neuroscience Track’, allows students to develop skills in mathematics and computer science to analyze and model the signals of the brain. For this track, Honors is optional.

REQUIREMENTS
Basic Requirements: 

  1. Required courses:
    1. Neurobiology Track: 13 courses (52 credits)
      1. Three courses in biology:
        1. Life Sciences 1a (or Life and Physical Sciences A) and Life Sciences 1b
        2. One course chosen from the following: HEB 1420, Life Sciences 2, MCB 60, MCB 63, MCB 64, MCB 65, MCB 68, OEB 53, SCRB 20, SCRB 25
      2. Five courses in neurobiology:
        1. MCB 80 or MCB 81
        2. One course chosen from the following (recommended sophomore or junior year): OEB 57, MCB 105, MCB 115, or MCB 125
        3. Three advanced courses in neurobiology (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website
      3. Three courses in physical or applied science fields:
        1. Ordinarily, all courses in Chemistry, Physical Sciences, and Physics or Applied Physics fulfill this requirement; select courses in Computer Science, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Engineering Sciences, and Mathematics may also fulfill this requirement
      4. Two courses in math, applied math, or statistics.
        1. At least one course must be at the level of Math 1b or higher
           
    2. Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track: 16 courses (64 credits) (Honors Only Track)
      1. Same as Neurobiology Track Requirements, except as noted below
        1. Two advanced courses in neurobiology (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website) instead of three.
        2. Two courses in physical or applied science fields instead of three. (Ordinarily, all courses in Chemistry, Physical Sciences, and Physics or Applied Physics fulfill this requirement; select courses in Computer Science, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Engineering Sciences, and Mathematics may also fulfill this requirement.)
      2. Two approved Mind, Brain, and Behavior course electives chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website. Not all of the courses listed in the Mind, Brain, and Behavior course search in the courses.my.harvard.edu are appropriate MBB electives for Neurobiology concentrators.
         
      3. Seminar in Mind, Brain, Behavior: MBB 980: course, letter-graded, recommended junior year. Select one from a list on the concentration website that varies each year.
      4. Honors with Thesis: Required (See Honors Requirements items 1B and 2).
         
      5. Other information: Students pursuing the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track are also expected to participate in key university-wide Mind, Brain, and Behavior research activities, including the all-day MBB junior symposium and a non-credit senior year  workshop for Mind, Brain, and Behavior thesis writers. Students are encouraged to join the student organization Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior (HSMBB)
    3. Computational Neuroscience Track: 14 courses (56 credits)
      1. Three courses in mathematics and statistics:
        1. Multivariable calculus: Math 21a, Applied Math 21a, Math 23b, Math 25b, or Math 55b.
        2. Linear algebra: Math 21b, Applied Math 21b, Math 23a, Math 25a, or Math 55a.
        3. Statistics 110.
      2. Two courses in computer science:
        1. CS 50. Note, students who skip CS 50 must take both CS 51 and CS 61.
        2. CS 51 or CS 61.
      3. Two courses in biology:
        1. Any one of the following: Life sciences 1a (or LPSA), 1b, or 2; MCB 60, 63, 64, 65, or 68; OEB 53; SCRB 20 or 25.
        2. One approved 100-level HEB, MCB, OEB, or SCRB course, or any second course from the list above.
      4. Five neurobiology courses:
        1. MCB 80 or MCB 81.
        2. One foundational quantitative neurobiology course from either MCB 105, MCB 115, Neuro 120, or equivalent.
        3. One additional advanced quantitative neurobiology course: BME 130, MCB 105, 115, 131, Psych 1401, 1451, Physics 141, or Neuro 130.
        4. Two additional advanced courses in neurobiology (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website).
      5. Any two courses in modeling and analysis from a restricted set of Applied Math, CS, Eng-Sci, MCB, and Statistics courses (chosen from a list maintained on the concentration website)
  2. Other Information:
    1. Advanced Placement: 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 101-level courses are offered each year. These tutorials are counted as advanced neurobiology courses. Neurobiology 101-level courses (full year 4 credit courses) are indivisible and cannot be divided or combined for credit. Only one tutorial may count towards the advanced neurobiology course requirement. Tutorial seminars that are offered each year are listed on the concentration website and in the course search in courses.my.harvard.edu.
    4. Other Course Credit: Ordinarily, Harvard Summer School courses (other than Organic Chemistry) may not count towards the concentration except by petition. Courses taken through study abroad programs may be counted by petition. Courses taken at other Harvard faculties (e.g., Harvard Medical School) may count for credit if the course is one of the approved advanced neurobiology courses; otherwise, it may be counted by petition.

Requirements for Honors Eligibility: 14-16 courses (56-64 credits)

  1. Required courses:
    1. Same as Basic Requirements in 1A, 1B, or 1C
    2. Course in independent research (Neurobiology 91 or LS 100/MCB 100)
  2. Thesis: Optional for the award of Honors or High Honors in Field, but required for Highest Honors in Field. The thesis is based on original research in neurobiology and is ordinarily conducted in a laboratory. In their final semester, students may also take Neurobiology 99, the thesis-writing tutorial, but it is not required. All students planning to submit a senior thesis must submit a short thesis proposal, usually during the spring term of junior year. The thesis proposal form is available on the concentration website. Members of the Committee on Degrees in Neurobiology evaluate theses based on input from the mentor and other faculty readers.

ADVISING

Dr. Ryan Draft and Dr. Laura Magnotti, the neurobiology Concentration Advisers, are available to provide guidance to concentrators and pre-concentrators on course selection, laboratory research, and fulfilling concentration requirements. Visit https://www.mcb.harvard.edu/undergraduate/neurobiology or contact Dr. Draft (BioLabs Room 1082a, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-9908, draft@fas.harvard.edu) or Dr. Magnotti (BioLabs Room 1082c, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-2432, magnotti@fas.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 or the concentration website.

HOW TO FIND OUT MORE

Head Tutor of Neurobiology: Professor Jeff Lichtman, NW 249.50 Northwest Building, 52 Oxford St. Cambridge, MA 02138, 617-496-8943. Neurobiology Concentration Advisers: Dr. Ryan Draft, BioLabs 1082a, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-9908, draft@fas.harvard.edu; Dr. Laura Magnotti, BioLabs 1082c, 16 Divinity Ave., 617-496-2432, magnotti@fas.harvard.edu. More information about the Neurobiology concentration can also be found at https://www.mcb.harvard.edu/undergraduate/neurobiology.

ENROLLMENT STATISTICS
Number of Concentrators as of December

Concentrators 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Neurobiology* 157 207 227 253 228 230 207 205 187

 

 

 

*Neurobiology does not participate in joint concentrations.