21 Neuroscience Research and Passion Project Ideas for Middle and High School Students
By Jordan Ellington
Project Support Manager at Polygence
By Logan Pearce
PhD candidate in Social Psychology at Princeton University
11 minute read
Neuroscientists study the ins and outs of the wiring within our nervous systems. If you’ve ever been interested in what happens within the brain to cause memory loss from something like Alzheimer’s Disease, this could be a great career path for you to explore! However, if the clinical side of neuroscience doesn’t interest you, there are plenty of other brain and cell related avenues to check out.
Neuroscience has many different fields of study that you can dive into (e.g., cognitive, clinical). Since neuroscience research often requires expensive equipment to measure different parts of the brain and the body, the project ideas in this article will focus primarily on literature reviews, which you can do from anywhere.
A literature review is a synthesis of key work that has been conducted about a topic over several years. Doing the research to conduct a literature review will deepen your understanding of your chosen neuroscience topic. You can present your research in a written report, YouTube video, blog post, podcast, or any other medium you want!
Learn more about the process of publishing vs. showcasing your research.
1. The Rhythms of our Brain
In this project, you’ll deepen your understanding of general neuroscience. How does our brain communicate? What is neural oscillation and how do neurons communicate? What are synapses and how do they work?
2. The Effects of Exercise on Long Term Memory
Exercising is important, and it has many physical and psychological benefits. Investigate the academic literature to understand how exercise affects chemicals in the brain and body. Then, conduct an experiment to determine if it is helpful to exercise before studying for an exam. For example, you could randomly assign half your participants to run for 10 minutes before studying for a short test, and instruct the other half of your participants to sit still for 10 minutes before studying. Give the participants a test immediately after studying and then 3 days later. Which group does better?
3. Individual differences in decision-making during uncertainty
We make so many decisions everyday, and almost every decision carries some degree of uncertainty. Past research has heavily focused on studying decision-making behavior by examining group averages (which assumes that all people generally adopt similar decision strategies). However, there has been a recent shift towards understanding individual differences, which better appreciates the fact that people may employ decision-making strategies that are fundamentally different from other people's strategies. This project aims at understanding people's unique decision-making strategies when people have uncertainty about which decision will result in the best outcome.
1. Abnormal Psychology
How has scientists’ understanding of a psychological disorder developed over time? Choose one psychological disorder (e.g., Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder) of interest, and research its causes and treatments. Since this is a neuroscience project, make sure to focus on the brain mechanisms at play, such as how people with certain disorders have unusual amounts of particular chemicals in their brain and how psychiatrists prescribe medicine to regulate these chemicals.
2. Neurodegenerative Diseases
This project is similar to the previous one; however, in this project you will research a neurodegenerative disease rather than a psychological disorder. A neurodegenerative disease is one in which neurons in the brain lose function and eventually die. The most common neurodegenerative diseases are Alzeheimer’s and Parkinson’s. What is the history of treatments for the neurodegenerative disease you’ve chosen? What are the neurological underpinnings of this disease and which types of people are most likely to have the diseases? What are the current best practices in treatments?
3. Marijuana and neurological disorders: friend or foe?
The use of medical marijuana for treating a variety of neurological conditions, such as chronic pain, autism spectrum disorders, and even Alzheimer's disease is becoming increasingly popular. On the other hand, studies have suggested that chronic marijuana use, especially during adolescence, predisposes individuals to mental health disorders. In this project, you will explore academic literature on the use of marijuana as a treatment for neurological disorders. Next, you will research the adverse effects of marijuana use, especially during adolescence. You can create a podcast, powerpoint presentation, or YouTube video to be shared with high school students, counselors, or other organizations.
4. Do nervous jitters actually help you perform better?
Research the academic literature to understand what happens in the brain and body when people feel anxious and the sympathetic versus parasympathetic nervous system. Next, conduct an experiment to see how anxiety affects performance on a reaction-time task. For example, you could induce an anxious state in the experimental participants by making them watch a 5-minute short jump scare video. Control participants would watch a non-scary video of the same length. Have all participants complete a reaction-time task and compare the two groups’ performance.
One of the coolest and most widely used techniques in neuroscience research today is optogenetics, which gives us the ability to control the activity of brain cells with a flash of light! In this project, you will research: How light-sensitive proteins were discovered and the basic principles of how they work in genetically-modified neurons; How optogenetics is used in research experiments to answer different types of questions in neuroscience; Some of the most important scientific discoveries from optogenetics and how optogenetics has changed the way we think about the brain.
2. Ethical and Scientific Considerations of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Research
Take a deep dive into stem cell research to gain a thorough understanding of the techniques and considerations involved. An induced pluripotent stem cell is an immature cell that is generated from an adult (mature) cell and that has regained the capacity to differentiate into any type of cell in the body. Do research into the ethical and scientific underpinnings of stem cell research and its medicinal uses. Once done, you will use your findings to write a review paper
Idea by neuroscience research mentor Chris
3. Sleep Medication: A bottle of lies or a bottle of dreams
Doctors often prescribe medications for people who have issues going to or staying asleep. However, many of these medications have mixed efficacy, and it is unknown exactly what they do. In this project ,you can investigate a currently prescribed drug/substance for sleep, such as ambien or melatonin. Research how the drug affects the brain, how effective it is, how it should be taken for maximum effect, and other details. If interested, you could also investigate potential treatments (e.g., endocannabinoids) that could be ground-breaking or have better results than the current medications. To complement your literature review, you could also conduct a survey to determine if sleep medications are helping people sleep.
4. Human Gene Editing and its therapeutic applications
In this project, you will investigate the history of therapeutic human gene editing, what therapeutic gene technologies are available or are currently being developed, and which conditions these tools are being used to treat. You may choose to focus more broadly on the history and current status of human gene editing tools and therapy, or focus more closely on a specific gene/condition pair that has been or could be explored for gene therapy (e.g., sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis).
Idea by neuroscience research mentor Jen
1. The Neuroscience of Illusions
Our perception of the world and everything around us is impacted greatly by our neural circuits. For example, our visual system includes neuronal receptive fields that respond to changes in light. This responsiveness can result in funny perceptual phenomena such as the Hermann grid illusion. In this project, you’ll spend time understanding and unpacking the brain’s wiring and how illusions are formed. You can then create your own illusion!
2. The Neuroscience of I Spy
How does the brain find what we are looking for? We live in a very noisy and complex environment, where things are constantly distracting us and competing for our attention. How do we make sense of all of this? It’s remarkable that our brain is able to process all this information (by filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on relevant pieces) in a meaningful and productive way. These processes are similar to the game ‘I Spy’. In this project, you will learn about brain anatomy, vision, and visual and cognitive processing.
3. The Neuroscience of Sensory Reactivity
How does atypical sensory reactivity change our behavior? Our senses are powerful, and they can change the way we perceive and navigate through the world. When senses are hyper- or hypo-sensitive, how does this affect people? Select a specific sensory pathway that you are interested in and examine how it is disrupted in a number of conditions, such as neurodevelopmental disorders.
1. The Effects of Positive Affirmation on the Brain
In this project, you will research how positive affirmations activate certain brain systems and how we can use positive affirmation practices to improve future outcomes. You can even conduct an experiment to test if these affirmations are effective! Randomly assign half of your participants to do a positive affirmation for a week. At the end of the week, give all of your participants a survey that asks about their mood.
2. Animal Models of Stress In Neuroscience
Research how neuroscientists induce stress in animal models to gain insight on poor mental health and psychiatric disorders in humans. Stress can cause changes in the neurons and cells in the brain. It can change the behaviors of the animals as well as their neuronal oscillations (firing). There are many models to induce stress, e.g., taking away a mouse's mother early, putting an aggressive, larger mouse with a smaller control mouse, etc.
Idea by neuroscience research mentor Sydney
3. Zebrafish as a Model Organism
Zebrafish have several advantages as a model organism for diseases and biological processes. In this project, you will familiarize yourself with this model organism and investigate how labs use these little guys to study a wide range of biological mechanisms. Choose a disease or process of interest and investigate the strengths and caveats of using this model organism for said disease/process. Ultimately, by doing this project you will inform yourself on the techniques labs use with zebrafish to answer important questions in biology.
1. Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience
How do brains generate behavior? Every animal, from nematodes with only 302 neurons to humans with over a hundred billion neurons, can perform an impressive array of behaviors thanks to the functioning of the nervous system. In this project, you will read papers on a variety of topics in behavioral neuroscience - including learning and memory, motivated behaviors, circadian rhythms, movement, and others – to understand exactly how neuroscientists ask and answer questions about how brains generate behavior.
2. To Fight or Flight? That is the question.
Our brains are wired from birth to respond to threats found in our immediate environment. These threat-activated circuits are responsible for regulating what is commonly referred to as our "Fight or Flight System". However, not everyone responds the same way to the same exact threat and not all behavioral responses are appropriate for the given conditions (e.g., fleeing from a friendly chihuahua may not be adaptive). What accounts for these differences in behavior? One explanation for these observed distinct behaviors is differences in past experience. How does previous experience affect our threat response?
In this project, you will read various peer-reviewed journals to gain an understanding of how researchers have looked at experience (i.e. stress) and its effect on brain activity in the presence of threats. You can explore this question by looking into: 1) Human research of patients with stress-induced psychiatric disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD). 2) Mouse research literature to learn about laboratory techniques used to assess defensive behaviors in response to threats.
1. Making Fun Science Illustrations
One Polygence mentor has an online platform called Fuzzy Synapse, which simplifies complex scientific ideas and concepts in a fun and easy way with a pinch of humor. They use videos and illustrations to depict concepts about cells and biology. After looking at the examples on the website, try your hand at making a video or illustration!
2. Explore Your Own Idea
You are the best-equipped to identify your interests and what you’d like to explore. If you have a neuroscience research or passion project topic in mind, you should go for it!
As you can see, neuroscience covers a wide range of topics, from zebrafish to illusions to sleep. You can check out the Polygence project ideas database for even more neuroscience project topic ideas to explore. Of course, neuroscience and psychology are closely related, so you should also read this article about collecting data in psychology to learn more about experimental, survey-based, and observational research.
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