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Understanding Disorders of the Brain


The brain is a complex and mysterious organ. When everything goes right, it is a finely tuned machine that serves as our body’s central processing unit. But like computers on the fritz, things occasionally go haywire in the brain, and the effects can be absolutely crushing. What happens when things go wrong?

The fields of psychology, neuroscience, and—more recently—neuropsychology are developing rapidly, offering more clues to unlocking the secrets of the brain. In the century and a half since railroad worker Phineas Gage’s famous personality-altering injury, scientists have mapped out the anatomy of the brain and examined the pathology of disorders such as:

  • Down syndrome,
  • Autism spectrum disorder,
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
  • Parkinson’s disease, and
  • Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Modern technology and research are allowing us to delve deeper than ever before into the fascinating world of brain science. Understanding Disorders of the Brain gives you an in-depth analysis of what can go awry inside our central processing unit. Taught by esteemed Professor Sandy Neargarder, these 24 eye-opening lessons survey some of the most common—and not-so-common—disorders that disrupt the many ways our brains function.

Professor Neargarder explores what we know about diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and more. She digs into the wiring of individuals with dyslexia, people prone to epileptic seizures, and mitochondrial diseases. And she analyzes the effects of traumas, ranging from athletic head injuries to strokes.

For each disorder, she walks you through the genetic and environmental factors that underlie the pathology, shares insight about the signs and symptoms to look out for, and reviews the latest research on treatment and cures. Building a better understanding of these disorders can help all of us minimize some risk factors, recognize symptoms, and ensure the best course of action for ourselves and those we love.

Delve into Diseases Wired at Birth

The course opens with a tour of how the brain is hardwired. From the cerebellum to the hypothalamus and from the limbic system to the cerebral cortex, you will uncover the secrets of this magnificent machine within our skulls. You will then get an introduction to the burgeoning field of “neuropsychology”—a field that uncovers the relationship between the brain’s function and cognitive behavior. This field allows scientists to properly assess brain disorders.

Whether written into our genetic code or caused by early environmental factors such as not receiving enough oxygen in the womb, many disorders of the brain are baked in at birth. While some intellectual disabilities are relatively mild, many require intensive lifelong treatment. Your investigation into early-onset disorders takes you into the realm of the brain’s visuospatial system, communication systems, and more.

One of the more common ailments in the news today, diagnosed early in life, is autism spectrum disorder. While not completely understood, recent research has shed new light onto autism—now recognized as a spectrum of disorders that includes Asperger’s syndrome. In a pair of lessons, Professor Neargarder investigates many of the truths and mistruths about autism and its impact on social engagement, communication, and more.

From Tumors to Traumas

While many brain disorders are present from birth, many do not show up until adulthood. For instance, multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disorder in which the protective coating on our nerve cells becomes damaged. MS is the most common non-traumatic disabling disease affecting younger adults and is most often diagnosed between ages 20 and 50.

The maddening thing about MS is that it is a highly individualistic disease. If 10 people with MS presented themselves, they would all have different symptoms and different patterns of progression. The complex nature of brain disorders like MS and others makes them incredibly difficult to understand and treat.

Brain tumors are an excellent example of highly unique disorders. Most of us know about—and are likely apprehensive of—brain tumors, but you might not know that there are roughly 120 types of brain and central nervous system tumors, characterized by size and how fast they progress (or metastasize). Professor Neargarder walks you through the most common types and associated symptoms to watch out for.

While scientists are at odds about the genetic versus environmental causes of most brain disorders, head traumas are decidedly environmental. While head injuries can share some common characteristics, they are unfortunately as varied as every individual. Here, you will survey what can happen from acute traumas such as car accidents and bomb blasts, as well as injuries sustained over time, such as from football or other contact sports.

Dementia and Bodily Decline

Old age is not for the faint of heart. In addition to the various bodily declines as we age, our brains are at risk for a range of dementias—conditions that describe a decline in memory functions. Over several in-depth lessons, Professor Neargarder dives into many of the most common types of dementia, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lewy body disease
  • Dementia from Parkinson’s disease
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Memory loss from dementia can be frightening and watching someone we love go through it can be heartbreaking. While there are no cures, Professor Neargarder reviews what we currently know about these disorders—and more important, what we can do to try to stave them off.

Tour the Future of Neuroscience

Exploring the complex world of brain disorders is captivating—but it can also be surprising to see all the ways our central processing unit can fail us, from cellular breakdown to seizures caused by misfiring neurons. Despite all the unknowns about brain disorders, Professor Neargarder provides a full overview of the advancements in technology and medicine, demonstrating how our toolkit for combatting brain disorders is larger than ever.

She shows you some of the latest advances in brain research and how they affect the treatment of brain disorders. As you will discover, several large-scale research projects are underway to examine both healthy and diseased brains. Meanwhile, cutting-edge imaging, artificial intelligence, and genome studies are creating the future of brain science.

Some of the recommendations from this research may reinforce what we already know. For example, a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and regular wellness exams are the keys to preventing strokes. And as you glimpse into the future of neuroscience and medicine, you will come away mesmerized by what’s possible.

Science has come a long way in solving the mysteries of the human brain, but we still have a long way to go. Understanding Disorders of the Brain is a powerful introduction to the journey of brain science in the 21st century.

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