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Neurological Disorder Research

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Neurological disorders have to do with a person's brain. But how do researchers examine the various ones? In this lesson we'll look at the types and tools of neurological disorder research.

Neurological Disorders

When Alberto was a young boy, his mother had a stroke and developed a neurological disorder as a result. Because of that, Alberto wants to be a brain researcher. But he's a little unsure about what research into neurological disorders entails.

Neurological disorders involve psychological problems that arise from injuries or illness to the brain. There are a wide variety of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and cerebral palsy.

So how do scientists research neurological disorders? To help Alberto answer that question, let's look at the common types of research done, and the common ways scientists can look at the brain.

Correlational Research

With the exception of medical trials, most research into neurological disorders is not experimental. An experimental research study would require people to be randomly selected to receive a neurological condition or not. Even if researchers could hand out neurological disorders, it wouldn't be ethical to do so.

The result is that almost all research into neurological disorders is correlational research, which can tell you that two variables are linked (or correlated), but not which one causes the other.

For example, some neurological disorders are correlated with cardiovascular disease. That is, a person who has cardiovascular disease is more likely to also have a neurological disorder. But does that mean that one is causing the other, or that something else is causing both of them? With correlational research, it can sometimes be difficult to tell.

Still, correlational research can tell us a lot about neurological disorders, such as what symptoms people experience and what things they have in common. There are two major types of correlational studies that are used in neurological research: case studies and large-scale correlational studies.

Case Studies

Case studies involve an in-depth look at one or two people. The neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote many famous books with case studies. In them, Sacks looks at one or two patients with a neurological disorder and describe what they are like.

Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks is famous for his books highlighting case studies.
olver sacks

How do they behave? What can and can't they do? Sacks answers these questions through the portraits he paints of his patients. In some of Sacks' books, each chapter is a different case study of a different neurological disorder.

The advantage of case studies is that they can give an in-depth view of a neurological disorder.

Large-Scale Correlational Studies

Large-scale correlational studies involve studying many subjects, and can give a bigger picture idea of trends in people with a particular neurological disorder. In these studies, a group of patients is analyzed to see what they have in common.

The conclusion mentioned earlier about neurological disorders being correlated with cardiovascular disease is an example of information that comes out of correlational studies that have more than one or two subjects.

Looking at the Brain

Alberto now understands the types of research studies that are common for neurological disorders, but how do scientists actually study the brain? How do they see it, if it's inside a person's head?

It used to be that autopsies, or cutting into a body after a person is dead, was the only way to look at a brain. Autopsies are still a good tool for some researchers, but there are many other tools available now that make it possible to look at a brain while it's still inside a living person.

For example, Alberto could do brain surgery with local anesthesia. This means that a person is kept awake and their scalp is numbed, and then cut into. The surgeon can then root around inside a person's brain. Because there are no pain sensors in the brain itself, the person can be awake while a doctor pokes and prods the person's brain.

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