What is Neurology?

“The task of neural science is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. How does the brain marshall its millions of individual nerve cells to produce behaviour, and how are these cells influenced by the environment...? The last frontier of the biological sciences – their ultimate challenge – is to understand the biological basis of consciousness and the mental processes by which we perceive, act, learn, and remember.”

Eric Kandel, Austrian-born American neuroscientist, 2000 Nobel Prizewinner. Quote from Principles of Neural Science, fourth edition.

Glossary of terms

The Neurological Foundation has created this Glossary of terms to help you understand some of the more technical terms you may come across when learning about neurology. If you can't find the word you are after in ours you could also try these glossaries:

The human brain consists of about 200 billion neurones – cells which generate, receive and transmit nervous impulses – together with many more billions of ‘glial’ cells (from the Greek word for glue).

Central nervous system

The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system and the autonomic nervous system – the nerves elsewhere in the human body which are controlled by the central system – are the other components. The nervous system is central to human life – understanding its operation and the factors that make it work or not are the ‘core business’ of the Neurological Foundation.


Neurology is the study of diseases and disorders of the nervous system. It overlaps with psychiatry and in some countries there is considerable interaction between the two. For example, upon graduating, Alois Alzheimer (after whom Alzheimer's disease was named) took up his first job in medicine at the state asylum in Frankfurt, later becoming Professor of Psychology at Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Breslau.

Physiology, anatomy and neurosurgery

Physiology (the science of functions of living organisms) and anatomy (the study of form and structure) are also major parts of the science of the human nervous system, along with neurosurgery. Together these branches of medical science have achieved major advances in man’s understanding of himself (and increasingly it has been by women) so that much of the function of the nervous system is now understood at least in outline and most of its disorders have been identified.

Neurological disorders

Most neurological disorders have been identified in the last 100 years. Alzheimer gave his famous lecture in 1906 and although Parkinson described ‘shaking palsy’ in 1817 the dopamine deficit which causes this disease was identified only recently, and all of Cushing’s seminal work in neurosurgery took place in the 20th century, most of it after 1912. Modern scientific techniques are enabling huge gains in knowledge; CT scanning and MRI have given us access to parts of the nervous system and particularly the brain which was impossible only a few years ago.

The recent growth in neuroscience activity reflects the increase in the incidence of neurological disorders. Some authorities forecast an epidemic of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and other dementias while stroke is rapidly becoming the major single cause of death in the Western world. In 1971, the year the Neurological Foundation was founded, 1500 scientists attended the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. In 1990 it had grown to 12,000 with the last meeting, in Chicago, October 2009, attended by 30,500 doctors and scientists.

Neurology affects us all. About 20 per cent of New Zealanders can expect to experience some form of neurological disorder and the chronic nature of most of these means that family members will be involved for many years, perhaps throughout their lifetimes.

The Neurological Foundation is New Zealand's only specialist neurological information organisation and the principal funder of research into the nervous system, its diseases and disorders and their prevention and treatment.