Course: NEU201
Instructor: Witten
F 2018

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The focus of this course is on the basic organization of the brain (on the cellular/biophysical level), and the mechanism of brain function in higher level-systems.

There is also some time spent in each module explaining the scientific experiments that led to these discoveries (but this is not the main emphasis).

NEU201 has a very structured organization, and is divided into 6 “modules”.

i) Electrical properties of neurons,

ii) Synaptic transmission,

iii) Visual systems,

iv) Motor systems,

v) Learning and memory,

vi) Neuropsychiatric diseases.

The modules work up from the cellular level to the function of the brain as a whole. The earlier modules are very focused on molecular-level interactions, e.g. ion flow across a cell membrane, that give eventually rise to larger-scope phenomena. But the focus is always on the mechanism, and less on the abstract system.

And the modules significantly build on each other. For example, the properties of neurons are used to explain synapses. And synapses are used to understand visual/motor systems and memory formation. Finally, the neuropsychiatric unit integrates all the previous units, and might be of particular interest to students interested in cognitive neuroscience and clinical applications.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The resources used in this course are: lectures, precepts, problem sets, textbook, review sessions & office hours, piazza.

Before I get into details, I would note that the curriculum in this course was very centralized, and well-organized around the modules. The resources in the course are mostly ways of reinforcing material covered in lecture. The resources don’t provide much extraneous information like in some courses, and there are not an overwhelming number of resources.

Lectures are probably the single most important source of information in this course.

These are exceptionally well-organized in terms of presentation of lecture content. Lecture slides are posted before each lecture. Each lecture begins with a quick review of content from the last lecture, and then presents a simple outline of topics that will be covered in that day’s lecture. Lectures generally proceed very logically, and I found them to be clear and for the most part, easy to follow. Throughout the lecture, we loop back to that outline of topics to be covered, and briefly review. And there are also iClicker questions, usually mid-lecture or at the end of lecture. These questions are not super complex, but meant to catch any misunderstandings, and reinforce key ideas.

I will say that students tend to have mixed reviews on the quality of the lecturer, some said the lectures were too slow, some say they went too fast. I found them to be just right. In any case, the lecturer frequently paused for students to catch up on notes, and to process information and ask questions.

In terms of lecture content, again, the emphasis was on the cellular-level mechanisms of brain functions. Lecture thus proceeded in a logical fashion (there is not a lot of skipping around to different topics). For major discoveries, there is some explanation of the scientific experiments that led to these discoveries (but this is not the main emphasis), although you are expected to know and understand these experiments.

Note-taking is absolutely crucial during lecture. In fact, all of the content of exams is covered in lecture, so taking notes during lecture, if done well, can easily be the only source of information you use for exam prep in this course.

In note-taking, I found it helpful to type notes (and I’m usually a hand-notes person) because I could copy/paste in important figures from the slides.

Any way you take notes, make sure to emphasize mechanisms and structure. It is important to note even small details, and to understand why those details are important to the overall phenomenon you are studying.

Precepts reinforce lecture material, but attack it from a different perspective, which is really helpful in making sure you understand the material, and are not just memorizing it.

The structure of precepts revolves around the weekly problem sets. Psets are usually a mix of simple mechanistic recall questions and questions that test your understanding of the topics presented in lecture (e.g. what would happen if something went wrong in this pathway?). Precept is structured around discussing pset questions, and often expands upon the ideas tested in psets, and reinforces related key concepts covered in lecture. It’s also a really really good place to ask questions and ask for clarifications. Preceptors are all very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions.

Piazza was a good resource in supplement to office hours and precepts. Primarily for asking a) logistical questions or b) clarifications or questions from past exams.

Learning For and From Assignments

Problem Sets are assigned every week. They come in the form of a google doc, and are graded on completion only. You might be tempted to put in simple answers because of this, but these are actually a great resource for consolidating the material, and finding out what ideas you’re confused about and what ideas you’re solid on.

The questions are open-ended, so my strategy was to include as much information as possible in the answer. I included information that was not explicitly required by the question, and built upon that information in a very logical way to arrive explicitly at some conclusion that answered the question.

I would recommend this approach or a similar approach because it will help consolidate the details of the mechanisms for you, and it will also help you connect how things lead to each other. Practicing this skill of detailed mechanistic reasoning is important in this course, and is tested in exams (even though they are multiple choice, the same type of logical reasoning is required to choose the correct option). Also, writing (or typing) things out a) helps consolidate and compartmentalize that information in your mind and b) helps pinpoint things you are confused about / gaps in your understanding.

Then, when problem sets are reviewed in precept, make sure you have your answers pulled up and are following along. Ask for clarifications and mentally correct errors in your understanding of the topics.

Textbook readings are not explicitly optional, but in my opinion are not required to do very well in the course (but this might depend on your preferred learning style). Textbook readings are posted on the syllabus next to the corresponding lecture, and match up almost perfectly with lecture content. The textbook is definitely more detailed than lecture, and it can be difficult to discern which details to retain from the textbook and which are extraneous, which is why I say that the textbook readings are supplementary. I personally used the textbook only a handful of times to clarify confusing concepts from lecture, or if I missed a lecture. I found it to be excessively detailed, but helpful and not difficult to read.

Exams: There are 3 quizzes in this course, and a final exam, all multiple choice (with some 1-2 sentence answers). The quizzes cover about 2 modules each.  There is usually much more time available to complete exams than is needed, in general.

The questions are a combination of straightforward recall of structure and mechanisms, and application of knowledge to both new and old situations. There is always 1 previous quiz/exam posted, and it is a very good indication of the types of problems in the quizzes/exam. In preparation for exams, I would definitely review notes and perhaps map out important mechanisms, or maybe talk through the module with another student in the class. I would also review pset questions (see section above for my suggestion about most effective use of psets), and clicker questions from lectures, and make sure that you can think critically about mechanisms and apply them to different situations.

There are usually extra office hours or review sessions before quizzes/exams, so bring questions and general things you are confused about to those. Also bring questions/confusions that arose from previous exam questions.

External Resources

None that I used or am aware of. It’s a pretty self-contained course.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This course is really essential for any future studies in neuroscience (even for NEU202, a lot of knowledge required is taught in NEU201). It truly covers the absolute fundamentals, and does so pretty methodically. It is an intro course, so there’s not much specialized knowledge that you learn, just some building blocks and exposure to neuroscience.

There is very little prior knowledge assumed. It helps to know some basic biology of the cell, and some basic chemistry (about chemical and electrical gradients, etc) for the first module on the electric properties of the cell, but it’s all very basic material. It would also help to know some basic circuit physics for that same unit, but I don’t think it absolutely necessary. I was fine without the physics understanding.

One thing that was time-consuming and not made clear in the course description at all was the 4 hours of psychology studies that you have to participate in as a requirement for the course. This 4 hours is required for all neuroscience/psychology courses (and is capped at 8 hours over the course of your Princeton career).

I personally really enjoyed this course, and thought it was very well organized and well-taught. I felt that there was a lot of support in the class, particularly with preceptors/review sessions/piazza. And I always knew what to expect, which was great (and a rare find in Princeton classes). And I really liked that there were 3 quizzes instead of 1 midterm. In terms of scheduling, it’s great because there is nothing on midterms week. It’s also great in terms of learning because you have to learn in small chunks, so it’s not overwhelming, and you can take the time to really learn the material.

If you like psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other higher-level things, this course might seem a bit detailed/tedious/dry.

I do tend to like molecular/cellular/biophysical-level mechanistic things though, I thought it was really fascinating and made me more interested in neuroscience.

Fundamentals of Neuroscience

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