Behavioral neuroscience combines the independent sciences of behavior analysis and neurobiology to achieve a greater understanding of the relationship between behavioral treatments and neural dysfunction.
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While the fields of neuroscience and behavior analysis have established vast bodies of knowledge independent of one another, they are often intrinsically connected. The most likely point of intersection between these two areas is the study of brain adaptation and change, known as neural plasticity. Neural plasticity studies the highly variable nature of the brain’s structures and how they develop due to a range of conditions.
B.F. Skinner, in his seminal work, The Behavior of Organisms, focused on establishing an independent science that studied the control and dynamics of behavior and then bridging the gap between behavior and neurobiology. Years later and Skinner’s methods continue to be widely adapted by neuroscientists.
Neuroscience is a vast discipline that encompasses many areas of study and scientific interests. What remains consistent is that all neuroscientists study the brain and nervous system. The focus on the behavior of the entire organism (individual) sets behavioral neuroscience apart from other types of neuroscience.
The extensive library of research on behavior analysis—the science of adaptive behavior—provides behavioral neuroscientists with an experimental and theoretical framework they can use when studying the neural bases of behaviors.
Behavioral neuroscientists integrate neurobiological and behavioral phenomena to study the relationship between the physiological processes of the brain and the behavior of the individual—the altering of neurons and the changes in behavior and cognition that result.
Behavioral neuroscientists examine the neurophysiological processes that serve as an undercurrent in functional relationships between behavior and the environment. Their goal is to understand how environment-behavior relationships are established and represented in the nervous system. In other words, how behavior interacts with and adapts to the environment and how the nervous system has evolved to support that interaction.
Behavioral neuroscientists study how the functional relationship between an individual’s behavior and the environment is established, maintained, or altered due to the brain and nervous system. They investigate how the nervous system participates in and accounts for the functional relationship between the environment and behavior.
While neuroscientists attempt to gain a deeper understanding of how the billions of nerve cells in the brain grow and connect and become organized functional circuits, behavioral neuroscientists are motivated to understand the behavior that results – how we think, remember, motivate.
Their work may involve discovering possible causes of disorders of the brain (e.g., depression, bi-polar disease, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.) and how to prevent or cure them. The range of this area of study is vast: there are more than 1,000 disorders of the brain and nervous system—more than any other disease group, including heart disease and cancer.
In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that neurological disorders affected more than one billion people around the globe. According to WHO, neurological disease make up about 11 percent of the world’s disease burden. In the United States, more than 44 million Americans are affected by neurological illnesses each year.
Advances in behavioral neuroscience could reduce these numbers and the costs associated with them. Behavioral neuroscientists are also working to solve problems in areas related to psychopharmacology, memory, language development, and the effects of environmental toxins, among many more.
Combining the Fields of Applied Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Neuroscience
Research done in the field of behavior analysis is used to advance behavioral neuroscience, just as insights in behavioral neuroscience have allowed applied behavior analysis to progress. This fusion between these two independent areas of study has influenced many of the most widely adopted behavioral approaches in brain disorders and developmental disorders and has resulted in a better understanding of the effects of disease and of therapeutic treatments on human cognition.
Advanced Degrees in Behavioral Neuroscience for Applied Behavior Analysts
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many applied behavior analysts who pursue doctoral degrees choose to focus on behavioral neuroscience. These PhD programs, usually located in departments of psychology, prepare students for research-oriented behavior analysis careers in academia or industry.
Coursework and research are focused on areas such as:
- Basic neurosciences
- Behavioral and biological aspects of stress and trauma
- Forensic neuropsychology
- Directed studies in behavioral neuroscience
- Adult communication disorders
- Neuropsychological assessment
- Functional neuroanatomy in neuropsychology
- Child clinical neuropsychology
Students of these doctoral programs seek to strengthen the connection between neuroscience and behavior analysis, often studying brain function before, during and following the implementation of various ABA therapies.
It is also common for students in applied behavior analysis master’s degree programs to minor in behavioral neuroscience. A minor in behavioral neuroscience complements a graduate program in ABA, providing students with an opportunity to study such topics as:
- Behavioral neuroscience
- Cellular neuroscience
- Cognitive neuroscience
- Developmental neuroscience
Behavioral Neuroscience Resources for Applied Behavior Analysts
The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies presents the work of behavioral neuroscientists working in the areas of:
- Language development
- Molecular basis of reinforcement
- Effects of environmental toxins
The Neuroscience Special Interest Group is a gathering spot for researchers, teachers, clinicians, and students interested in the fusion of behavior analysis and neuroscience related to clinical interventions, neurological dysfunction, and basic research. The four primary missions of this special interest group are:
- To introduce behavior analytic research to neuroscience and neuroscience research to behavior analysis
- To provide a training environment for students and professionals interested in basic and applied neuroscience research
- To serve as a forum where professionals can share best practices and form collaborative relationships
- To promote high standards aimed at applying behavior analysis treatments for individuals with neurological dysfunctions.
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience is an open-access journal that publishes new and exciting areas of research in behavioral neuroscience. Some of the current research topics include:
- The Impact of Stress on Cognition and Motivation
- Hormones and Economic Behavior
- Impact of Diet on Learning, Memory, and Cognition
- Mind-Brain Plasticity and Rehabilitation of Cognitive Functions: What Techniques Have Been Proven Effective?
- Schizophrenia: Human and Animal Studies
- Language and Cognition