Basic sciences syllabus

The latest version of the syllabic curriculum basic sciences content for the MRCPsych can be found on the College's Preparing for Paper A webpage. Trainees Online modules are being developed in response to the recent developments in the neuroscience curriculum. Each time we publish a new module, we will add a link to the relevant area of the syllabus. Here you can track our progress and see the syllabus covered by each module so you can find the modules that cover the topics you want to learn. This list will be updated shortly in response to the revised neuroscience curriculum, published in July 2018.


Modules in green have been published. All other modules are forthcoming.   


Please note that this is not the full syllabus, it covers the basic sciences only.


You can also view our original module list for our first set of basic science modules.


The basic science syllabus is currently tested in Paper A. For guidance, please see the Exams pages on the main College website.





The trainee shall demonstrate core knowledge in the key areas of behavioural science and socio-cultural psychiatry. This knowledge will include basic and social psychology.



1.1       Basic Psychology



1.1.1 Learning theory: classical, operant, observational and cognitive models. The concepts of extinction and reinforcement. Learning processes and aetiological formulation of clinical problems, including the concepts of generalisation, secondary reinforcement, incubation and stimulus preparedness. Escape and avoidance conditioning. Clinical applications in behavioural treatments: reciprocal inhibition, habituation, chaining, shaping, cueing. The impact of various reinforcement schedules. The psychology of punishment. Optimal conditions for observational learning.


Module title: Learning Theory



1.1.2 Basic principles of visual and auditory perception: figure ground differentiation, object constancy, set, and other aspects of perceptual organisation. Perception as an active process. The relevance of perceptual theory to illusions, hallucinations and other psychopathology. The development of visual perception as an illustration of constitutional/ environmental interaction.


Module title: Basic principles of visual and auditory perception



1.1.3 Information processing and attention. The application of these to the study of schizophrenia and other conditions.


Module title: Attention and information processing



1.1.4 Memory: influences upon and optimal conditions for encoding, storage and retrieval. Primary working memory storage capacity and the principle of chunking. Semantic episodic and skills memories and other aspects of long-term/secondary memory. The process of forgetting. Emotional factors and retrieval. Distortion, inference, schemata and elaboration in relation. The relevance of this to memory disorders and their assessment.


Module title: Memory



1.1.5 Thought: the possible relationship with language. Concepts, prototypes and cores. Deductive and inductive reasoning. Problem-solving strategies, algorithms and heuristics.


Module title: Thought



1.1.6 Personality: derivation of nomothetic and idiographic theories. Trait and type approaches and elementary personal construct theory. Resume of principles underlying psychoanalytic, social learning, cognitive neuroscience and humanistic approaches. The interactionist approach. Construction and use of inventories, rating scales, grids and Q-sort.


Module title: Personality



1.1.7 Motivation: needs and drives. Extrinsic theories (based on primary and secondary drive reduction) and homeostasis. Hypothalamic systems and satiety. Intrinsic theories, curiosity and optimum levels of arousal. Limitations of approach and attempts to integrate. Cognitive consistency. Need for achievement (nAch). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


Module title: Motivation



1.1.8 Emotion: components of emotional response. Critical appraisal of James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories. Cognitive appraisal, differentiation and the status of primary emotions. Emotions and performance.


Module title: Emotion



1.1.9 Stress: physiological and psychological aspects. Situational factors: life events, daily hassles/uplifts, conflict and trauma. Vulnerability and invulnerability, type A behaviour theory. Coping mechanisms. Locus of control, learned helplessness and learned resourcefulness. Resilience.


Module title: Stress



1.1.10 States and levels of awareness: levels of consciousness and evidence for unconscious processing. Arousal, attention and alertness. Sleep structure and dreaming. Parasomnias. Biorhythms and effects of sleep deprivation. Hypnosis and suggestibility. Meditation and trances.


Module title: States and levels of awareness



1.2 Social Psychology



1.2.1 Attitudes: components and measurement by Thurstone, Likert and semantic differential scales. Attitude change and persuasive communication. Cognitive consistency and dissonance. Attitude-behaviour relationships.


Module title: Attitudes



1.2.2 Self psychology: self-concept, self-esteem and self-image. Self-recognition and personal identity.


Module title: Self-psychology



1.2.3 Interpersonal issues: person perception, affiliation and friendship. Attribution theory, ‘naive psychology’ and the primary (fundamental) attribution error. Social behaviour in social interactions. ‘Theory of mind’ as it might apply to pervasive developmental and personality disorders. Elemental linguistics as applied to interpersonal communication.


Module title: Interpersonal issues



1.2.4 Leadership, social influence, power and obedience. Types of social power. Influence operating in small and large groups or crowds: conformity, polarisation and ‘groupthink’, deindividuation. Communicative control in relationships.


Module title: Social influence: leadership, power, conformity and obedience



1.2.5 Intergroup behaviour: prejudice, stereotypes and intergroup hostility. Social identity and group membership.


Module title: Intergroup behaviour



1.2.6 Aggression: explanations according to social learning theory, operant conditioning, ethnology, frustration and arousal concepts. The influence of television and other media.  Family and social backgrounds of aggressive individuals.


Module title: Aggression



1.2.7 Altruism, social exchange theory and helping relationships. Interpersonal co-operation.


Module title: Altruism



1.3 Social science & socio-cultural psychiatry



1.3.1 Descriptive terms: social class, socio-economic status and their relevance to psychiatric disorder and health care delivery.


Module title: Social class and socio-economic status



1.3.2 The social roles of doctors. Sick role and illness behaviour.


Module title: The social role of doctors



1.3.3 Family life in relation to major mental illness (particularly the effects of high Expressed Emotion).


Module title: Family life in relation to major mental illness



1.3.4 Social factors and specific mental health issues, particularly depression, schizophrenia and addictions. Life events and their subjective, contextual evaluation.


Module title: Social factors and specific mental health issues



1.3.5 The sociology of residential institutions.


Module title: A social history of mental health institutions



1.3.6 Basic principles of criminology and penology.


Module title: Basic principles of criminology and penology



1.3.7 Stigma and prejudice.


Module title: Stigma and prejudice



1.3.8 Ethnic minorities, acculturation and mental health.


Module title: The mental health of ethnic minorities



1.3.9 Ethics and philosophy in psychiatry


Module title: Ethics and philosophy in psychiatry





The trainee should be knowledgeable about normal biological, psychological and social development from infancy to old age. This is in order to consider:

·         The stages of normal development in order to determine whether an individual’s style of thinking, coping, feeling or behaviour is appropriate for that stage or may be an indication of illness

·         How the stage of cognitive and emotional development may influence the aetiology, presentation and management of mental health problems

·         Factors that may be associated with vulnerability to mental health problems and protective factors associated with resilience.

·         Developmental issues in relation to the varied cultural and economic backgrounds of patients.


In particular trainees should be able to demonstrate knowledge of:



2.1 Basic frameworks for conceptualising development: nature and nurture, stage theories, maturational tasks. Possible definitions of maturity. Examination of gene-environment interactions with specific reference to intelligence. Relative influence of early versus later adversities. The relevance of developmental framework for understanding the impact of specific adversities such as trauma.  Historical models and theories: Freud and general psychoanalytic; social-learning, Piaget.


2.2 Methodology for studying development: cross sectional, cohort and individual studies. Identification and evaluation of influences.


Module title: Conceptualising and studying development



2.3 Bowlby attachment theory and its relevance to emotional development, affect regulation and human relationships in childhood and later on. Conditions for secure attachment. Types and clinical relevance of insecure and disorganised attachment. Early separation and its consequences. Consequences of failure to develop selective attachments. Brief consideration of attachment, maternal ‘bonding’ parental sensitivity.


2.4 Other aspects of family relationships and parenting practices. The influence of parental attitudes compared with parenting practices. Systemic theory including supportive systems in development, and aspects of distorted family function: e.g. discord, overprotection, rejection, and enmeshment. The impact of bereavement, parental divorce and intra-familial abuse on subsequent development and mental health of the child. The relevance or otherwise of different family structures including cultural influences on family and stages of family.


Module title: Family relationships



2.5 Individual temperamental differences and their impact on parent-child relationships. Origins, typologies and stability of temperament and the evolution of character and personality. Childhood vulnerability and resilience with respect to mental health.


2.6 Cognitive development with critical reference to key models such as the bio-psychosocial model and Piaget’s model.  The impact of attributions and beliefs, and cultural, genetic and other influences.   The relevance of pre-operational and formal operational thought to communication with children and adults.


Module title: Development of temperament (Sections 1-3)



2.7 Basic outline of language development in childhood with special reference to environmental influences and communicative competence.


Module title: Development of language



2.8 Development of social competence and relationships with peers: acceptance, group formation, co-operation, friendships, isolation and rejection. The components of popularity.


2.9 Moral development with critical reference to Kohlberg’s stage theory. Relationship to development of social perspective taking.


Module title: Development of social competence and morals



2.10 Development of emotion literacy and emotional regulation in childhood and adolescence including development of fears in childhood and adolescence with reference to age. Possible aetiological and maintenance mechanisms.


Module title: Development of Temperament (Section 4)



2.11 Sexual development including the development of sexual identity and preferences.


2.12 Adolescence as a developmental phase with special reference to pubertal changes, task mastery, conflict with parents and authority, affective stability and ‘turmoil’. Normal and abnormal adolescent development.


Module title: Adolescence and sexual development



2.13 Adaptations in adult life, such as pairing, parenting, illness, bereavement and loss.


2.14 Pregnancy and childbirth and their stresses both physiological and psychological.


2.15 The development of personal (ego-) identity in adolescence and adult life. Work, ethnic, gender and other identities. Mid-life ‘crises’.


Module title: Adaptations in adult life


2.16 Normal ageing and its impact on physical, social, cognitive and emotional aspects of individual functioning. Social changes accompanying old age, importance of loss, personality changes with ageing.  Social and economic factors in old age; attitude, status of the elderly, retirement, income, accommodation, socio-cultural differences.


2.17 Genetic influences on development including gene environment interactions.


2.18 Neuroimaging and its role in understanding development.  Up to date findings in this field.


Module title: Normal ageing




The trainee shall demonstrate knowledge of basic neurosciences which underpin the practice of clinical psychiatry.



3.1 Neuroanatomy



3.1.1 The general anatomy of the brain and the functions of the lobes and some of the major gyri including the prefrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus and limbic system. Basic knowledge of the cranial nerves and spinal chord.


Module title: The functional anatomy of the brain



3.1.2 The anatomy of the basal ganglia.


Module title: The anatomy of the basal ganglia



3.1.3 The internal anatomy of the temporal lobe, i.e. hippocampal formation and amygdala.


Module title: The internal anatomy of the temporal lobe



3.1.4 The major white matter pathways, e.g. corpus callosum, fornix, Papez’s circuit and other circuits relevant to integrated behaviour (see neurophysiology section).


Module title: The major white matter pathways



3.1.5 The types of cell found within the nervous system.


Module title: The types of cell found within the nervous system



3.1.6 The major neurochemical pathways, including the nigrostriatal, mesolimbic and mesocortical dopamine pathways, the ascending noradrenergic pathway from the locus coeruleus, the basal forebrain cholinergic pathway, the brain stem cholinergic pathway, the corticofugal glutamate system and serotonin pathways.


Module title: The major neurochemical pathways



3.2 Neurophysiology



3.2.1 The basic concepts in the physiology of neurones, synapses and receptors, including synthesis, release and uptake of transmitters. A basic knowledge of action potential, resting potential, ion fluxes and channels etc.


Module title: The physiology of neurons



3.2.2 The physiology and anatomical pathways of the neural and endocrine systems involved in integrated behaviour including perception, pain, memory, motor function, arousal, drives (sexual behaviour, hunger and thirst), motivation and the emotions, including aggression, fear and stress. Knowledge of disturbances of these functions with relevance to organic and non-organic (functional) psychiatry.


Module title: The neural and endocrine systems



3.2.3 The development and localisation of cerebral functions throughout the life span from the foetal stages onwards and their relevance to the effects of injury at different ages to the brain and to mental function. An understanding of neurodevelopmental models of psychiatric disorders and of cerebral plasticity.


Module title: The development of cerebral functions



3.2.4 An understanding of the neuroendocrine system, in particular the control of the secretion of hypothalamic and pituitary hormones (by releasing factors and by feedback control) and posterior pituitary function. The main hormonal changes in psychiatric disorders. A basic understanding of neuroendocrine rhythms and their disturbance in psychiatric disorders.


Module title: Neuroendocrine disorders



3.2.5 A basic knowledge of the physiology of arousal and sleep and with particular reference to noradrenergic activity and the locus coeruleus.


Module title: The physiology of arousal and sleep



3.2.6 The normal EEG (including frequency bands) and evoked response techniques. The applications to investigation of cerebral pathology, seizure disorders, sleep and psychiatric disorders. The effects of drugs on the EEG.


Module title: The EEG



3.3 Neurochemistry



3.3.1 Transmitter synthesis, storage and release. Ion channels and calcium flux in relation to this.


Module title: Neurotransmitters



3.3.2 Knowledge of receptor structure and function in relation to the transmitters listed below. Pre-synaptic and post-synaptic receptors.


Module title: Neuroreceptors



3.3.3 Basic pharmacology of noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, excitatory amino acids.


Module title: Pharmacology of neurotransmitters



3.3.4 Elementary knowledge of neuropeptides, particularly corticotrophin releasing hormone and cholecystokinin and the encephalins/endorphins.


Module title: Neuropeptides



3.4 Molecular Genetics



3.4.1 Basic concepts: chromosomes, cell division, gene structure, transcription and translation, structure of the human genome, patterns of inheritance.


3.4.2 Traditional techniques: family, twin and adoption studies.


Module title: Basic genetics



3.4.3 Techniques in molecular genetics: restriction enzymes, molecular cloning and gene probes, Southern blotting, restriction fragment length polymorphisms, recombination.


3.4.4 Distinction between direct gene analysis and gene tracking. Genetic markers, linkage studies, lod scores. Genome wide association studies, genetic variants.


Module title: Techniques in genetics



3.4.5 Conditions associated with chromosome abnormalities.


3.4.6 Principal inherited conditions encountered in psychiatric practice and the genetic contribution to specific psychiatric disorders.


Module title: Chromosomal abnormalities and inherited conditions in psychiatry



3.4.7 Prenatal identification. Genetic counselling. The organisation of clinical genetic services, DNA banks.


3.4.8 Molecular and genetic heterogeneity. Phenotype/genotype correspondence. Endophenotypes. Gene X Environment interaction. Epigenetics.


Module title: Clinical genetics



3.5 Neuropathology



3.5.1 Neuropathology of Dementia Neuropathology of Alzheimer’s Disease Neuropathology of Pick’s Disease and Fronto-Temporal Dementias Neuropathology of Lewy Body diseases including Parkinson’s Disease


Module title: Neuropathology: Part 1 – dementia



3.5.2 Neuropathology of Prion Diseases


3.5.3 Neuropathology of HIV brain disease.


Module title: Neuropathology: Part 2 – HIV and prion diseases





The trainee will demonstrate knowledge of psychopharmacology. This knowledge will include will include pharmacological action, clinical indications, side effects, drug interactions, toxicity and appropriate prescribing practice. In particular trainees will be able to demonstrate knowledge of:



4.1 General principles. A brief historical overview of the development of psychotropic drugs. Their classification. Optimising patient compliance. Knowledge of the placebo effect and the importance of controlling for it. The principles of rational prescribing of psychoactive drugs.


Module title: General principles of clinical psychopharmacology



4.2 Pharmacokinetics



4.2.1 General principles of absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination. Drug interactions.  Particular reference to a comparison of oral, intramuscular and intravenous routes of administration as they affect drug availability, elimination as it affects the life of the drug in the body and access to the brain through the ‘blood-brain barrier’. Applications of these to choice of administrative route and timing of doses. The relationship of ageing, culture, ethnicity to pharmacokinetics.


Module title: Pharmacokinetics: Part 1 introduction



4.2.2 Relationships between plasma drug level and therapeutic response: the possibilities and limitations of this concept with specific examples such as lithium, antidepressants and anticonvulsants.


Module title: Pharmacokinetics: Part 2  therapeutic drug monitoring



4.3 Pharmacodynamics



4.3.1 Synaptic receptor complexity, main receptor sub-types, phenomena of receptor up- and down- regulation. Pharmacogenetics.


Module title: Pharmacodynamics: Part 1



4.3.2 The principal CNS pharmacology of the main groups of drugs used in psychiatry with particular attention to their postulated modes of action in achieving therapeutic affect: at both molecular/synaptic and systems levels. These groups would include ‘anti-psychotic’ agents, drugs used in the treatment of affective disorder (both mood altering and stabilising), anxiolytics, hypnotics and anti-epileptic agents. The relationship of culture, race and ethnicity to pharmacodynamics.


4.3.3 Neurochemical effects of ECT.


Module title: Pharmacodynamics: Part 2



4.4 Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs)

4.4.1 Understanding of dose-related as distinct from ‘idiosyncratic’ ADRs.

4.4.2 The major categories of ADRs associated with the main groups of drugs used in psychiatry and those associated with appropriate corrective action.

4.4.3 The importance of assessing risks and benefits for every individual patient in relation to his medication. Risks and benefits of psychotropic drugs in acute, short- and long-term use including effects of withdrawal. Where appropriate, knowledge of official guidance on the use of particular drugs (e.g. the Royal College Guidelines on the use of Benzodiazepines, NICE guidance).

4.4.4 The information database for adverse drug reactions and how to report them.

4.4.5 Prescribing of controlled drugs.


Module title: Adverse drug reactions


© 2021 Royal College of Psychiatrists