Biological Sciences 300/301, Smith College | Neurophysiology

Tips on Writing about Neuroscience


You are writing for informed readers, such as other students in our course. You need to explain your ideas at a level they would understand, but you don't need to define common neuroscience terms.


In a short paper, you haven't got a lot of space. Get right down to your central point in the first paragraph. Don't ramble on, and don't spend a page "setting up" the problem.


Science papers are rich in facts. Give explicit factual support for ideas that you are advocating....


...but don't give us a jumble of facts without logical support for your overall argument. Facts need to be in service of basic ideas, and the connection between the big picture and the little details needs to be clear at all times. Use explicit transitions to help us see where each paragraph is going.


In addition to clear logical structure for the overall paper, make each sentence simple and clear as well. False "elegance" is no virtue here. Write as if you were talking to the reader. Tell us what you want us to know.


Quotes are seldom needed in science papers. The idea, not the exact words, is what you should be borrowing from your sources. If you can't say it in your own words, you probably haven't understood it. But do give citations for important facts or ideas, usually as the author(s) and year of publication, all in parentheses, such as "(Hodgkin and Huxley, 1952)" or "as Hodgkin and Huxley (1952) showed...."


If the assignment asks you to discuss topics A, B, and C, don't spend all your time on topic A -- unless it is the real heart of the assignment, and B and C are merely brief extensions. Try to balance the importance of the subtopics and the space you give them.


Some words often turn up where another word was intended. Some common examples in neuroscience are:

Elicit means to evoke or stimulate. Illicit means illegal or forbidden. You probably mean "elicit" unless you are writing about illegal drugs.

Affect is the verb, meaning to influence or modify something. Effect is the noun, the change or consequence that results. (OK, under rare circumstances, affect can be a noun (emotion) and effect can be a verb (put into action). You probably don't intend those meanings, however.)

Ganglion is the singular, ganglia the plural. (A ganglion is a cluster of neurons in a nervous system, such as a single ganglion in the chain of ganglia that form the nerve cord of a crayfish.)

A nerve is a bundle of axons that goes to a peripheral structure, such as the nerve that innervates swimmeret muscles. A neuron is a single nerve cell. "The axons of motor neurons in the lateral neuropil leave the ganglion in the nerve to the swimmerets."

Innervate is an anatomical or developmental term that means to make connections to a target. To describe sending spikes along that pathway to affect the target, use activate or a more specific word like excite or inhibit. "Motoneuron axons in the first roots innervate the swimmeret muscles. Spikes in those neurons excite the muscle cells and cause contraction."

A burst of neural activity is a period of very active spiking with relatively inactive periods before and after. One can measure the duration of a burst and the frequency (rate) with which bursts occur. Neurons that fire frequently but without inactive intervals are displaying a high rate of tonic activity.

bursting and tonic activity

The illustration shows multiunit bursts of activity on the left (the burst rate is about 1 per sec), and tonic activity on the right. Time markers: 1 sec (left), 200 msec (right).

Also see "Easily Confused or Misused Words" (infoplease).

© 2004, 2011 by Richard F. Olivo. Permission is granted to non-profit educational institutions to reproduce or adapt this Web page for internal use provided that the original source and copyright are acknowledged.

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