Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action

Duke University

Learn the basic structure and function of the human nervous system, how nerve cells generate electrical signals and communicate, how they reshape their connections with use, and how neural systems integrate external and internal sensory signals to orchestrate action.

This course is a shorter version of my medical school-caliber course, Medical Neuroscience. Like its parent course, this shorter course covers the organization and physiology of the human central nervous system. The focus of Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action is on the basic components of the brain and spinal cord, the means by which nerve cells generate electrical signals and communicate, the neural mechanisms of synaptic and circuit plasticity, and the organization of the sensory and motor systems that integrate experience and motivate behavior. Unlike its parent course, this shorter course is not so clinically focused. Rather, it aims to explore foundational mechanisms in neuroscience without emphasizing the competency of localizing lesions in the human central nervous system (a major focus of Medical Neuroscience).

The overall goal of this course is to equip learners to be successful in our specialization, Perception, Action and the Brain. To help you get the most out of our specialization, this course will teach you the basic neural mechanisms that makes it possible for the human brain to contend with an onslaught of sensory signals and generate successful behavior for survival and flourishing in a complex world. Thus, the other two courses in Perception, Action and the Brain will introduce you to the phenomenology of what we see and the means by which the brain generates visual representations (Visual Perception and the Brain), and challenge you to understand how the brain creates our sense of spatial location from a variety of sensory and motor sources, and how this spatial sense in turn shapes our cognitive abilities (The Brain and Space). The role, then, of Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action is to give you a "look under the hood" so that you can understand the neural mechanisms that operate at the level of synapses, circuits, and sensorimotor systems. You will then use this intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the human central nervous system as you take on the final project in our specialization.

This course is for advanced baccalaureate and prospective or current graduate students who are pursuing degrees in the brain sciences. It is also for students or professionals in technical fields concerned with human factors in computing, virtual reality, or gaming who are interested in understanding how the brain generates perceptions and actions. Teachers who are interested in understanding how the brain works as a means to enhance their curriculum in science education, or just to enhance student learning more generally will benefit. As will anyone who is simply curious about how the brain contends with sensory information and produces action.


This course comprises four units of content:
  • Unit 1 Neuroanatomy. This unit covers the surface anatomy of the human brain, its internal structure, and the overall organization of sensory and motor systems in the brainstem and spinal cord.
  • Unit 2 Neural signaling. This unit addresses the fundamental mechanisms of neuronal excitability, signal generation and propagation, synaptic transmission, post synaptic mechanisms of signal integration, and neural plasticity.
  • Unit 3 Sensory systems. Here, you will learn the overall organization and function of the sensory systems that contribute to our sense of self relative to the world around us: somatic sensory systems, proprioception, vision, audition, and balance senses.
  • Unit 4 Motor systems. The course concludes with a survey of the brain and spinal mechanisms that govern bodily movement.

Recommended Background

To be successful in this course, a college-level background in cellular and molecular biology is strongly recommended.

Suggested Readings

Although the course is designed to be self-contained for students with the recommended background, students wanting to expand their knowledge and reinforce their understanding are strongly encouraged to complete all recommended readings.  The primary reference text for this course is Neuroscience, 5th Ed., by Purves et al. (Sinauer Assoc., Inc.).  This text is bundled with neuroanatomical software,  Sylvius 4 Online: An Interactive Atlas and Visual Glossary of Human Neuroanatomy, (also available as a standalone subscription).

Course Format

The course consists of video tutorials delivered by Professor White, a neuroscientist, educator, and director of courses for undergraduate, graduate, medical, and physical therapy students at Duke University. Typically, the video tutorials contain 1 or more integrated multiple-choice questions. Each video tutorial will be accompanied by original tutorial notes that will guide learning. Regular unit quizzes and application experiences, including one peer assessed assignment focused on functional neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, will assist students in keeping pace with course content. Learning will be supported by recommended textbook readings and interactive activities using digital atlases of the human brain and spinal cord.

This course will have a verified certificate option, but will not be accepting payments until the class starts.


  • Should I enroll in Signature Track?

    You can enroll in this course for free if you wish to take it as a stand-alone learning experience. However, if you plan on completing our specialization, Perception, Action and the Brain, then yes; you must enroll in Signature Track. Earning a verified certificate in each course is required to successfully complete the specialization.

  • Why don't I see the Signature Track option?

    You will be able to sign up and pay for Signature Track closer to when the course begins. If you "Join for Free" now, we will notify you at that time, so you can join Signature Track and have this course count toward your Specialization coursework.

  • Should I enroll in Medical Neuroscience or Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action?

    if you are currently enrolled in a health professions curriculum or are preparing to do so having satisfied the usual prerequisites, then you should take Medical Neuroscience. That course is designed to provide you with the foundational knowledge you will need in basic neuroscience and clinical neuroanatomy for success in the health professions. Moreover, it is longer, more comprehensive, and more consistent with the rigors of medical education. On the other hand, if your interests are not so clinical or if you are mainly looking for foundational knowledge of how the brain works at the levels of cells, synapses, circuits and sensorimotor systems, then Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action is for you. Or maybe you just don't have 12 weeks to devote to an intense medical-school caliber course; then, the shorter course is the better option. Either way, both courses fulfill the requirements for our specialization.

  • What is the intellectual difficulty of this course?

    The intellectual challenge and content level of this course is comparable to what first-year students in the graduate-level health professions or first-year doctoral (PhD) students would experience. However, this course is not designed to survey ALL major domains of knowledge in the brain sciences (as would a graduate curriculum). Our focus here is the neural mechanisms for perception and action. In terms of weekly time and effort, you will probably agree that this course is the most demanding of the courses in our specialization (with the exception of Medical Neuroscience, which is even longer and more demanding!).

  • I'm planning on completing the specialization, Perception, Action and the Brain; should I start with this course?

    You certainly may start our specialization with this course, but we do not require that you do so.  You can take any of our courses in the order that makes most sense to you.  If you don't know where to start, then go ahead and begin here.

  • Is there a required textbook for this course?

    You can be successful in this course without acquiring Neuroscience, 5th Ed. However, your experience will be significantly enhanced if you acquire the text and complete all recommended readings.

  • 30 March 2015, 9 weeks
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  • Language: English Gb


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