What is the difference between a neurologist and a neuroscientist?

When you are choosing the career of your life, and you are interested in the natural sciences, you will wonder what is the differences between a neurologist and a neuroscientist?

The most straightforward answer is:  to become a neurologist you must be a physician, but for a neuroscientist, it is not a requirement to be a physician.  For example, considering epilepsy, a common disease of the nervous system, the neurologist treats with drugs epilepsy-afflicted patients; the neuroscientist makes those drugs. 

But there are additional statements of interest that will guide you:

  • You can be both a neurologist and a neuroscientist.
  • The neurologist is primarily a physician; the neuroscientist is primarily a researcher.
  • The target for both professionals is the nervous system, however, the neurologist diagnoses and treats nervous system diseases, whereas the neuroscientist does research not only on those diseases but on many other related topics, as I will describe below.  
  • As you will see, neurologists often have a targeted specialization, which is seldom the case for a neuroscientist. 

Let us define with more precision what is a neurologist and a neuroscientist. Then I will describe which are the requirements for each profession, and finally, I will describe in detail what does each of them.    

What is a neurologist?

A neurologist is a medical specialist. If  you are planning to be a neurologist, this is the route you have to follow:  

  1. You have to obtain a bachelor’s degree. This degree may be in neuroscience, anatomy, biology, chemistry, humanities, psychology, and others. A training program like this may take 2 or 3 years.
  2.  After that, you must obtain a medical degree, which takes 4 years as an average.
  3. Then you have to follow an internship (lasting two years), and after that, you will start a residence in neurology, which takes between 3 and 4 years. 
  4. Once you are a neurologist, you can start your medical practice in an office or a hospital. However, most neurologists do one or several fellowships in very specific topics of the nervous system. Those fellowships entitle you with a sub-specialty in neurology.  Below, you will find a list of the most common neurology’s fellowship in America and Europe.      

Fellowships in neurology 

  • Behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry: you will learn to diagnose and treat patients with degenerative diseases who often have cognitive deficits.
  • Epilepsy: This is one of the most important branches in neurology. You will learn about pharmacological and surgical treatments for people with treatment-resistant seizures. Importantly, you will not conduct those surgical procedures on your own, since it is the province of neurosurgery.
  • Headache medicine: this is an important field in medical practice since headaches of the migraine type are incapacitating disorders indeed. This is also a field in which neurologists interact with psychiatrists and psychologists in the assistance of severe cases.  
  • Movement disorders: you will treat people with Parkinson’s disease, Huntington chorea, Tourette’s syndrome, tics, abnormal movements associated with pharmacological treatments such a first-generation antipsychotics,  and many others. 
  • Neurocritical care: you will work in intensive care units, assisting people undergoing brain or spine surgery, injuries, refractory seizures, and other severe disorders. 
  • Neurohospitalist: you will command and organize complex medical teams in public and private centers, generally affiliated to an academic center.
  • Neuroimmunology: in this sub-specialty, you will treat people with severe diseases such as lupus erythematosus and multiple sclerosis. 
  • Neuromuscular medicine: this field deals with disorders such as Myasthenia Gravis.  
  • Neuro-Oncology: you will treat brain and spine tumors and the toxic effects of cancer effects in the brain.
  • Sleep medicine: it is concerned with sleep disorders in children and adults. You will use bioelectrical tests to properly diagnose and treat a wide range of disorders.
  • Vascular neurology: you will learn invasive and non-invasive techniques to aid in preventing and treating stroke complications.
  • Clinical neurophysiology:  you will conduct tests to assess the functioning of the peripheral nerves, muscles, and the electrical activity of the brain.
  • Infections of the nervous system: you will be an expert in diagnosing and treating viral, bacterial, and other parasite infections of the brain and spine.   
  • Neuroepidemiology: this subspecialty studies the distribution of diseases in the population, risk and protective factors, and others. 

A neurologist can also be a researcher in any of the above-mentioned areas and share his/her time with clinical activities.  

What is a neuroscientist?

A neuroscientist is a professional who is devoted to the study of the nervous system. This is an extensive scientific field as I will describe below.

Which is the path to become a neuroscientist?

  • Neuroscience, biology, zoology, microbiology, anatomy, chemistry, pharmacology, molecular biology, genetics, and others.
  • If you plan to do clinical work, you will need a medical degree. Otherwise, you should go directly from college to a Ph.D. program of your particular interest.
  • In the doctorate program, you will probably select the field or fields to which you will devote your professional life and probably will spend some years in a post-doctorate program.
  • Then you can work in a university laboratory, or a hospital, or the private industry. You will probably do teaching besides research.  

What follows is a list of the main areas of research in basic, clinical, and applied neuroscience in which you may work as a neuroscientist. As you will see, I will follow a sequence from basic to applied neuroscience. Besides, I will provide relevant examples.

Contemporary fields for a neuroscience career 

  • Evolutionary neuroscience: describes the origin and changes throughout the eras of particular features of interest: molecules, cells, tissues, organs, behaviors, social structures, and others. This field may include studies about comparative embryology. For example, tracing the origins and changes in the hemoglobin molecule throughout the species.
  • Molecular neuroscience: for a given molecule or set of molecules, this neuroscience branch identifies, describes, models, synthesizes, tests in vitro, and in vivo and traces its genetic origins. For example, describing the structure and function of the dopamine receptor in the brain. 
  • Genetic neuroscience: identifies the genes involved in the synthesis and regulation of a given trait. For example, the genes involved in body segmentation, many of which are preserved throughout the species.  
  • Cellular neuroscience: bioelectrical and biochemical features of a cellular line. For example, the study of the neurons and glial cells of the circadian clock in the hypothalamus.
  • Basic and applied neuropharmacology: design and /or testing drugs for modulating features from genes to behavior. For example, drugs for the treatment of negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
  • Cognitive neuroscience: identifies the conscious and unconscious mechanisms involved in perception, memory, language, reasoning decision-making procedures. For example, the origin, development, and trade-off of metaphorical language. Another example, the molecular and cellular mechanisms of short- and long-term memory.
  • Computational neuroscience: it models certain features of the nervous system, for example, word recognition.  
  • Neuroscience and neurological disorders: molecular and cellular dysfunctions in nervous system diseases. For example, the description of the genes involved in the development of Huntington’s chorea and the effects of those genes in diverse mental functions.
  • Neuroscience and psychiatric disorders: the role of genes, family environment, nurturing, education, gender, parent’s age at the time of conception,  fetal and childhood nervous system infections, physical and emotional traumas, nutrients,  microbiota,  and others, in the age of first symptoms in schizophrenia.
  • Neuroscience and learning disabilities: the effects of genes, rearing, fetal environment, and infections on the appearance of dyslexia, and other learning disorders.   
  • Neuroscience and developmental psychology: this field explores how diverse features of the nervous system are related to character, temperament,  and personality development.  For example, the role of serotonin and catecholamines in the expression of the so-called 5 super factors of personality: neuroticism, extroversion/introversion, consciousness,  agreeableness, and openness to experience.

  • Neuroscience and addictions: it explores the genetic, developmental, biochemical, neurophysiological, experiential, and personality-based influences on the origin and maintenance of tobacco, alcohol, and other drug addictions.    
  • Neuroscience and sexuality: it studies the genetic, rearing, and peer influences on sexual preferences, along with the neural pathways involved in cognitive and behavioral sex-related traits.  
  • Neuroimmunology: the most visible area of this field explores the role of the immune system in the genesis of nervous system dysfunctions in some systemic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lateral amyotrophic sclerosis, systemic lupus, and many other disorders. But there are other important areas such as the role of the brain and immune system in aging, cancer, infectious diseases, and others.   

  • Neuroscience and nutrition: this field has a long scientific tradition, from early studies about the neural basis of feeding behavior and its role in body weight regulation and obesity, to current studies about nutrients and emotions, behavior, attention, general intelligence, attention deficit disorder, Asperger spectrum, and many others.   
  • Neuroscience, infections, and behavior: this is an exciting area because there is preliminary evidence in animals, that some bodily infections may profoundly affect behavior. A classic example is how brain toxoplasma infection leads to rats and mice to environmental overexposure, which makes them prone to predation.  Bill Sullivan, Ph.D. working at Indiana University School of Medicine showed that this “suicidal behavior” is related to brain inflammation and that it may be reversed by specific drugs. While this type of phenomenon has not been conclusively proved in humans, it opened a whole new field in neuroscience research, with enormous relevance for human and animal psychology. 

  • Neuroscience and personal well-being: this is a relatively new branch that integrates numerous disciplines, and intends to bridge abstract topics as spirituality, philosophy, meditation, and yoga among many others. As a whole, neuroscience intents provide reliable information about which features of brain functioning can be better integrated with the well-being field. 
  • Clinical neuroscience: if a neuroscientist also has a medical degree he/she can do clinical work. His/her duties and clinical skills will depend on the specific institution and research groups where he/she belongs to.    

The average annual salary for neuroscientists and neurologists ranges from $ 96,420 to $ 102,260 a year, and $120.000 to $317, for 2018 and 2020 respectively (BLS, www.bls.gov). 

Both, the neurologist and the neuroscientist are respected professionals devoted to the study of the nervous system. Neurologists are medical doctors, primarily concerned with clinical work, but often they are also actively involved in basic and clinical research. Neuroscientists are primarily researchers but can do clinical work, generally in research-oriented clinical settings. Ideally, they creatively interact for the benefit of the suffering people and their families.

References (in addition to linked text above)

Kandel E, Schwartz J, Jessel TM, Siegelbaum S, Hudspeth A. Principles of Neural Science. Fifth edition. McGraw Hill, Medical 2013. 

Martynowicz M, Augusto L, Wek RC, Boehm SL, Sullivan,  WJ, Jr. Guanabenz reverses a key behavioral change caused by latent Toxoplasmosis in mice by reducing neuroinflammation. mBio. 2019 Mar-Apr; 10(2): e00381-19. Published online 2019 Apr 30. DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00381-19

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