art, politics and neuroscience revolution


A hand drawn diagram by Santiago Ramón y Cajal of brain cells labelled with letters

A drawing of neurons within the cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.Credit score: Cajal Institute (CSIC), Madrid

The Mind in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron Benjamin Ehrlich Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2022)

Is the mind’s gray matter a steady community of fibres? On the finish of the nineteenth century, this was a contentious query, with high-stakes implications: an opposing idea that the gray matter was product of separate cells had gained traction by 1906, when the Nobel prize honoured two giants of neuroscience for work on the construction of the nervous system. The laureates embodied the hostile extremes of the dispute, a feud that has gone down within the annals of science historical past.

Camillo Golgi, who clung to the continuous-web idea, abused his Nobel acceptance speech to assault his youthful co-laureate, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Cajal behaved himself on the ceremony, however elsewhere, he had described Golgi’s stubbornness as “a typical case of the crippling affect of theoretical prejudice”.

Cajal was proved proper. His delicate tissue preparations clearly confirmed tiny gaps between particular person mind cells. His work has been in comparison with that of Andreas Vesalius, the Renaissance doctor whose beautiful drawings of his personal anatomical dissections revolutionized medication. Cajal’s immense inventive abilities equally led him to profound insights into mind improvement and performance, most of which have stood the take a look at of time.

He started his life as a juvenile delinquent within the distant Pyrenean mountains of northern Spain, relates Benjamin Ehrlich in his deeply researched guide The Mind in Search of Itself. The primary main English-language biography of Cajal, it maps out his scientific work in broad strokes and describes his politically turbulent instances. Such is the wealth of element, nonetheless, that the narrative typically struggles to take care of its thread.

Cajal’s domineering father was decided that his son ought to observe in his footsteps as a doctor. However Cajal was a reluctant pupil: he discovered rote studying troublesome and kicked in opposition to self-discipline, leading to beatings from his father. When he declared that he needed to be knowledgeable artist — he drew and painted obsessively — his father confiscated his brushes and despatched him to a distant and harsh Jesuit secondary faculty, from which he absconded after just a few months. At his subsequent faculty, one trainer described him as “inattentive, lazy, disobedient, and annoying”. One other stated he would find yourself in jail “if they don’t dangle him first”. As soon as, he taught himself to make gunpowder, constructed a cannon from junk and fired it at a neighbour’s home. That escapade earnt him just a few days in jail.

Someway, Cajal scraped his baccalaureate, and enrolled in medical faculty in Zaragoza, the area’s largest city. There, he got here throughout the cell idea of German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, which held that the physique, a minimum of exterior the mind, consists of particular person primary models of life. Excited, Cajal sought out the college’s solely microscope and appeared down at a frog whose cells had been rendered seen by a pink stain derived from cochineal bugs.

Revolution was rumbling in the course of the years of Cajal’s schooling, and Spain’s colonies, significantly Cuba, had been struggling for his or her independence. In 1873, when he graduated, the primary Spanish republic was declared and Cajal was conscripted into the military’s medical corps. Dispatched to Cuba, he grew to become so unwell with malaria that he requested discharge.

Skinny and sick, he taught at his alma mater and ready for his doctorate. Looking a medical provide store whereas in Madrid for an examination, he noticed probably the most superior microscope then out there. It value greater than half his yearly earnings; he used his military discharge cash to assist purchase it.

Microscopy strategies

Cajal shut himself within the attic of the household dwelling, studying tips on how to put together tissue for microscopy and drawing or photographing his preparations. At 31, he landed his first school place, in Valencia. He wrote a textbook of histology, which surveyed all tissues of the human physique besides the mind. That was too troublesome to stain. On one other fateful go to to Madrid, he was launched to a staining method known as la reazione nera — the black response — developed by Golgi some years earlier. It displayed nerve cells superbly.

Cajal refined the extremely unreliable technique. Now in Barcelona, he remoted himself together with his microscope and mind preparations and noticed particular person cells wherever he appeared. He based a journal, The Trimonthly Assessment of Regular and Pathological Histology. Its inaugural problem, in Might 1888, described the primary unequivocal proof that the mind was product of particular person cells. Cajal despatched copies to main scientists overseas; he obtained no response. The following 12 months, at a world congress in Berlin, his work was lastly acknowledged. He shot to fame. Golgi was enraged that his personal technique had been used, as he noticed it, in opposition to him.

Cajal was a prolific, flowery author who revealed fashionable science and novels in addition to innumerable educational papers. He developed new stains for nerve cells and described the event and evolution of the nervous techniques in different species. He elaborated all this within the two-volume Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y los vertebrados (Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates, 1899–1904) — 2,000 pages of textual content with almost 1,000 of his personal illustrations.

Ehrlich paints a vivid image of a powerful, pushed character, anti-authoritarian, anti-elite and brash. However he doesn’t develop how and why Cajal’s discoveries have been so elementary to trendy neuroscience. None of Cajal’s drawings is included, an incomprehensible omission. There’s an occasional misinterpretation; for instance, he implies that Cajal had a dig at Golgi in his Nobel acceptance speech, however the passage he quotes refers to different scientists.

Nonetheless, the narrative is charming. In his late sixties, Cajal discovered himself behaving like Golgi. A youthful colleague developed a brand new stain that enabled him to see even finer constructions than Cajal had been capable of see. He used it to point out two distinct sorts of glial cell — non-neuronal mind cells. Cajal had judged these cells, which he known as the “third aspect”, to be homogeneous. Incensed, Cajal dismissed the invention. In contrast to Golgi, he later mirrored on his behaviour and apologized.

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