University years

Who are the fathers of Neuroscience?

Eventually, after graduating with a bachelor’s in Biotechnology with an excellent vote, I could go on with my studies and I decided to continue staying at the University of Pavia and enrol in the Neurobiology master’s degree. As I already mentioned in one of my first posts, I always got fascinated by the complexity of the brain and its capacity to use Chemistry and Physics, integrate them and use them to produce behaviours, feelings, thoughts and memories.

However today, before starting getting into the single topics and subjects I had to study and the interesting science related fact, I would like to talk to you about the two scientists that are considered the fathers of Neuroscience and their dispute: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi, chair of General Pathology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Pavia, who also established the University of Pavia’s Institute of Pathology, which greatly increased Pavia’s prestige and attracted a host of visiting scientists from within and outside of Italy.

Camillo Golgi was born on July 7, 1843, a moment of scientific history where, even though microscopes had been used for more than two centuries, cells of the nervous system were still virtually invisible to microscopy. Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born almost 9 years later, on May 1, 1852, and the cell theory was brand new to the world of science: the idea that body tissues were composed of individual cells was not widely accepted among biologists, nor did cell theory even include the basic concept that all cells come from pre-existing cells. Despite some improvements in dyes, that helped improve cell visibility, early microscopists lacked stains that could elucidate cell structure and consequently, cells could not be seen in all biological tissues: the scientific world was still not ready for the idea of the cell as the basic unit of life. The first clear indication that the brain was made of cells came in 1837, some years before the two scientists were born, when Czech anatomist Johann Purkinje cut into a cerebellum with a new instrument that made very thin slices, that could be then viewed under the microscope. This allowed Purkinje to see large cells that were later called neurons, and to show their presence throughout the cerebellum (an area in the brain implicated in motor control and some cognitive functions, such as attention and language).

When Golgi graduated in Medicine from the University of Pavia, he headed for psychiatry, strongly believing that all mental disorders resulted from physical resulted from physical lesions in neural centers. However, he soon grew frustrated with psychiatry, since none of the “theories” proposed in connection with mental illness could be subjected to physical tests that might reveal any physical lesions: unfortunately, the nature of the nervous system was still completely unknown. As a result, Golgi left psychiatry and set out instead to figure out the structure of the nervous system and how it worked. This meant focusing largely on histology (microscopic anatomy) of the brain and other structures of the nervous system. He started developing new stains and staining techniques that he hoped would elucidate nervous tissue under the microscope. Eventually Golgi came up with a procedure that proved remarkably effective: it made features of the nervous tissue – features that today we know as the membranes of nerve cells – stand out as black silhouettes against a golden-yellow background. He called his discovery the “reazione nera” (“black reaction”) and it proved so effective that its use has persisted up to this date, even though today it is called the “Golgi stain” (see picture below).

Neuron cell structures dyed with the “reazione negra” or “Golgi stain” method. Modified from

In the meanwhile, Ramón y Cajal was doing his own research over in Spain and, during the 1860s and early 1870s, microscopy improved greatly, due to rapid advances in optics as well as staining for different types of tissues and parts of cells. These improvements led Ramón y Cajal to a major discovery: the brain itself is made of individual cells. Even if this statement seems axiomatic today, it was not so clear in the late 1880s, and indeed, Golgi advocated something entirely different, called the reticular theory. It was an alternative to the neuron doctrine and suggested that the fibers that Golgi, Ramón y Cajal, and others who repeated their experiments were seeing were part of a continuous electrical network, or reticulum. However, thanks to his artistic ability, Ramón y Cajal was able to draw, almost photographically, what his modified technique of the “Golgi stain” showed on the bird brain tissue and, overall, that the fibers were distinct cells: Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered that nerve tissue was composed of individual nerve cells and this overturned reticular theory, the idea that Golgi supported.

By the turn of the 20th century, the cellular nature of the brain was fairly clear, and both scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1906, for their work elucidating the structure of the nervous system. The revealed structure included specific features within nervous tissue, but also the cellular nature of that tissue. It was the first time that the Nobel Prize was shared between two Laureates and, despite the fact that Golgi continued to reject even in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech the neuron doctrine, on the other hand, Cajal during his speech said: “The other half was very justly adjudicated to the illustrious professor of Pavia, Camillo Golgi, the originator of the method with which I accomplished my most striking discoveries.”

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