Top 10 Neuroscience Acronyms Explained

Science articles use lots of difficult words to explain very complicated concepts. Neuroscience publications are a perfect example of the intricate nature of scientific research – there are numerous methods used to look at the brain and even more variables that contribute to brain function. Here is a list of 10 top neuroscience acronyms that can help you unscramble those daunting scientific articles.

1. MRI

A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner allow for researchers and clinicians to view detailed images of the human body. The scanner has two large magnets that interact with the water molecules and protons in your body. The strength of the magnets cause the protons to resonate and produce their own magnetic field, which the MRI machine uses to form an image. These images can be used to examine the body’s tissue and diagnose tumors, strokes, spinal cord injuries, and more. And the best part about MRI scans is they are non-invasive and do not require the use of radiation.

For a quick overview on the science and history of MRI’s, read our post, Behind The Clanking and Buzzing of an MRI.

 2. fMRI

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) uses MRI technology, but instead of only looking at the brain’s tissue, it observes blood flow within the brain. Blood flow is the key indicator of brain activity – if the neurons in the brain are activated, they require more blood to deliver oxygen. When you’re receiving an fMRI scan, the fluctuation of blood flow in your brain is captured by a computer, with high blood flow areas represented by bright colors. fMRI’s allow researchers to map out which parts of the brain carry out certain tasks. For example, researchers can use fMRI scans to identify which parts of the brain are activated when somebody is in pain. Or, fMRI data can allow researchers to analyze emotions and see what parts of the brain light up when somebody feels grief, or love, or anger.

3. BOLD Response

As mentioned above, fMRI’s are dependent on blood and oxygen flow within the brain to identify neuronal activity. The Blood Oxygen Level-Dependent (BOLD) Response is what is used to observe those changes in blood flow. The response occurs when oxygenated blood flows to the neurons and the oxygen diffuses from the blood to supply the neurons with the necessary fuel to function. Once the oxygen leaves the blood, the oxygenated blood becomes deoxygenated. At rest, the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated blood is stable. However, when neuronal activity occurs, the neurons require more oxygen and they receive an influx of oxygenated blood. The increase in oxygenated blood causes the fMRI signal to increase. Once the neurons are no longer activated, the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated blood returns to baseline.

To view a video of the BOLD Response, click here.

4. DTI

DTI stands for Diffusion Tensor Imaging and is a type of MRI technique that measures the movement of water in brain tissue. More specifically, it examines water movement in your white matter tracts. White matter tracts are made of up bundles of axons within your brain, which transfer information from the neuron’s core to a neighboring neuron. The axons are surrounded and protected but a fatty substance called myelin, which gives them the white color. The gray matter, on the other hand, is named for its pinkish-gray color and contains the cell bodies, axon terminals, and dendrites. DTI imaging allows researchers and clinicians to see how the brain is linked together and detect abnormalities that may not show up on a normal MRI scan (and it creates a pretty amazing picture!).

5. EEG

An electroencephalogram (EEG) is another way to view brain activity. Specifically, EEG’s detect electrical activity in the brain using metal discs called electrodes that attach to your scalp. Neurons are constantly communicating with each other through electrical impulses, even during sleep. When viewed through an EEG recording, these impulses appear as wavy lines that can be used to diagnose seizure activity and other brain disorders.


Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) is an up-and-coming imaging technique that uses near-infrared light to look at the brain. Similar to an EEG, small probes are attached to your scalp. Except instead of detecting electrical impulses, NIRS probes shine light through your skull and illuminate the oxygenation of blood in your brain. While receiving a NIRS scan, you can engage in a variety of tasks and the computer will log your brain’s activity. This allows researchers to look at brain function, injury, or disease.

7. PET

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are slightly more invasive than the MRI, EEG, and NIRS methods because they use a radioactive substance, called a tracer, to look at your organs and tissues. The tracer is injected into your vein, absorbed by your body, and then detected by the PET machine and transformed into a picture. PET scans are particularly useful for seeing how an organ is functioning. They can be used to reveal which part of the brain has been damaged by seizure activity, or to show the progression of cancer and help doctors develop a more effective treatment.

8. TMS

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a method of brain stimulation that uses magnetic fields to stimulate your brain’s nerve cells. When receiving TMS, a large coil is placed against your head and it emits a magnetic pulse to activate different regions of your brain. TMS is used to help treat depression, as the pulses seem to stimulate cells involved in mood. It is not fully understood why TMS is effective for depression patients and research in the science world is ongoing to uncover the biology of this mechanism.

9. CNS

The Central Nervous System (CNS) consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that travel from the base of the brain down the spinal column. Within the brain, there are about 100 billion neurons that each contain dendrites and axons. Dendrites bring information into the cell body and axons transfer information out from the cell body to the next neuron. With the spinal cord and brain working together, the nervous system is able to take in information from the external world, process that information, and turn it into thoughts, movements, and sensations.

10. CSF

CSF stands for cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds both the brain and spinal cord. The key functions of CSF are to protect the brain and spine from injury, to transport nutrients and antibodies around the central nervous system, and to remove waste products from the brain. CSF tests can be used to detect diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis by analyzing the concentration of antibodies and proteins within the fluid.

Helen Santoro

Posted by Helen Santoro

Helen graduated from Hamilton College in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience. She is currently involved in an fMRI study looking at children, adolescents and young adults who suffer from post-concussive headaches.

  1. […] Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures the movement of water in the brain’s white matter tracks. With DTI, researchers can separate the brain’s white matter – which is made of up of tubular structure called the axon that conducts, processes, and sends nerve signals up and down the spinal cord – from the rest of the brain. Additionally, it allows scientists to analyze the structural damage of the spinal cord. […]


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