What is physiology?
Physiology is the science of life. It is the branch of biology that aims to understand the mechanisms of living things, from the basis of cell function at the ionic and molecular level to the integrated behaviour of the whole body and the influence of the external environment. Research in physiology helps us to understand how the body works in health and how it responds and adapts to the challenges of everyday life; it also helps us to determine what goes wrong in disease, facilitating the development of new treatments and guidelines for maintaining human and animal health. The emphasis on integrating molecular, cellular, systems and whole body function is what distinguishes physiology from the other life sciences.
Physiology is an experimental science. Research in physiology advances our understanding of the detailed mechanisms that control and regulate the behaviour of living things. We continue to learn more about fundamental processes, such as the control of heart rate or the sense of vision, through comprehensive exploration of the multiple processes involved.
Example 1: Electrical activity of the heart
Physiologists have studied how neurotransmitters modify the spontaneous electrical activity of the heart to bring about the changes in heart rate that we all experience when we exercise. Details of the electrical changes in the pacemaker cells of the heart itself are becoming well understood. The synthesis, breakdown and recycling of the neurotransmitters that mediate such changes and the location and gene-expression of the specific proteins they act upon are also targets for study.
Example 2: How eyes detect light
Physiologists seek to understand how the eyes detect light and thus inform the brain about the outside world. They study all the levels of the processes involved, from investigating how photons are captured by visual pigments in light-sensitive cells of the retina, to monitoring the integration of incoming signals in the visual cortex of the brain.
Read Andrew Parker’s blog on the topic:
Seeing Depth in the Brain – Part I
Seeing Depth in the Brain – Part II
What do physiologists do?
All over the world, physiologists are working in universities, in research institutions, in biotechnology companies and in the pharmaceutical industry to advance our understanding of how the body functions. Physiology is an exciting and dynamic discipline that underpins translational and clinical medicine. It also provides the interface between the physical sciences and the life sciences.
Physiologists study every aspect of the way human and other animal bodies work. Some physiologists investigate the behaviour of individual proteins in single cells. Others are researching the interaction of cells in tissues, organs and systems or study the integration of these systems to control the whole complex organism. This work provides the foundation for many biological and clinical sciences, including medicine and veterinary science.
Not all physiologists are found in research laboratories, though. Physiologists also work with patients in hospital clinics, helping with the diagnosis and management of disease. They work alongside elite athletes, helping to improve their performance and avoid injury, or they investigate how the body adapts to extreme environmental challenges, such as deep sea diving or prolonged space flight. Physiology is recognised globally. Physiologists can travel the world to conferences and meetings to present their findings to other scientists. Some physiologists report scientific developments for newspapers, journals and other media, or play an advisory role to Government or charitable organisations. Physiologists also use their skills in the legal arena, engaging in complex issues of patent law, or in education, inspiring and nurturing the next generation. Studying physiology opens doors to employment in all these areas and more. For more information about the range of careers and skills you can develop through a physiology degree, click here.