7 epic historical rivalries that shaped neuroscience

I admit I have a keen interest in rivalries. I think they reveal something primal about the human psyche. Nothing beats professional conflicts in their sheer intensity, and the scientific world is particularly rife with fierce duels and petty jealousies. And the main driver for these squabbles, often prolonged and bruising, is the ambition to be recognised as the first and the best. And the fuel is often the tempting allure of a juicy patent, and perhaps a Nobel prize to boot. Some scientific feuds are legendary, such as the one between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, or the one between electricity giants Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

By RollieBOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Coming closer home, the medical world has had, and continues to have, its share of rivalries. A look back at different stages of history reveals virulent feuds such as the one between polio vaccine pioneers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, and the HIV rivalry between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier. We can look even back further to the conflict between medical microbiologists Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, or the wars between cardiac surgery giants Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley.

 

By Hisland7Own work, Public Domain, Link

How has the field of neuroscience fared in the duelling arena? Here are our 7 epic historical rivalries that shaped neuroscience.

1. Wilder Penfield versus Francis Walshe

This is not a huge controversy, but there is enough hurt ego to class it a rivalry. Wilder Penfield, the brilliant neurosurgeon, was instrumental to mapping the representation of the motor and sensory cortex, defining the homonculus. He did this through his experiments during awake surgery for people with intractable epilepsy at the prestigous Canadian Neurological Institute. Francis Walshe, neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery was, to say the least, unimpressed by Penfield’s surgical approach. And he said so to Penfield’s hearing at an Anglo-American Symposium which held in London. The controversy also played out in a series of letters between the two. But it is possible the rivalry goes further back in time; they probably never took to each other when they both trained under the great neurologist Gordon Holmes. And at the heart of the matter is the disdain with which neurologists regarded neurosurgeons at that time. How the tide has changed.

By Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/blm_programs/whb.Par.51951.Image.-1.-1.1.gif, Public Domain, Link

2. Sigmund Freud versus Carl Jung

These are two of the leading figures in psychoanalysis. The older Sigmund Freud, and the younger Carl Jung, liked each other at the outset…until their scientific theories about the nature of the unconscious made them rivals. This resulted in the two distinct Jungian and Freudian concepts. Some go as far as to argue that sex and race were also driving their rivalry. Whatever the reasons, things got very heated with Freud claiming Jung wanted him dead. How much worse could a rivalry get?

Two Stallions Fighting Spanner Sculpture. Bushie on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bushie/4083544951

3. Jean-Martin Charcot versus Charles Bouchard

The French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is considered by many to be the father of modern neurology. Charles Bouchard on the other hand was a student of Charcot. Things fell apart between the two as soon as Bouchard became a professor. No Nobel prizes at stake here-their feud revolved around a brutal struggle for power and influence. Even though Bouchard got the upper hand, history hasn’t remembered him as well as it has Charcot. Just by the way, Charcot may have also had a simmering rivalry with Jules Joseph Dejerine! I am not quite sure what that says about the personalities at the crucible of neurology.

Fight of the Metal Stallions 4-15. Don Graham on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/26855754985/

4. Vladimir Bekhterev versus Ivan Pavlov

Vladimir Bekhterev is not a household name, but the Russian neurologist is instrumental to defining the role of the hippocampus in memory, and indeed has an eponymous non-neurological disease known as Ankylosing spondylitis. Bekhterev had a simmering conflict with his fellow countryman and physiologist Ivan Pavlov. And this had to do, unsurprisingly, with their rather similar theories of conditioned reflexes. It did not help that they both had “oversized and confrontational personalities“. This is one rivalry that blew out of all proportions, spilling into open enmity.

Horse Fight. Sam Howzit on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/aloha75/4024092009

5. Camillo Golgi versus Santiago Ramon y Cajal

This rivalry is between two people who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906. It was at the prize-giving ceremony that the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi maliciously shredded his co-recipient, the Spanish Santiago Ramon y Cajal. The stakes in this rivalry were very high for neuroscience, as it concerned the fundamental structure of the nervous system. Golgi originally developed the staining method which made neurones visible, but Cajal refined and improved it. He then went on to demonstrate that neurones do not form seamless interconnected cells, firing in all directions, as Golgi argued. Rather, he found neurones to be individual cells firing in one direction. Cajal’s neuron doctrine was the eventual winner in this one.

By Albert de Balleroy – http://www.latribunedelart.com/spip.php?page=docbig&id_document=11895, Public Domain, Link

 6. Ambroise Pare versus Andreas Vesalius

This is a rivalry that played out in royalty. The French surgeon Ambroise Pare was already recognised for refining the treatment of battlefield wounds and amputations. And he later became the official surgeon to King Henry. The Spanish Andreas Vesalius, on the other hand, had established his fame with human anatomy, and he was the official physician to King Philip. His defining work is the highly regarded De Humani Corporis Fabrica. In this very scientific rivalry, devoid of ego, the two giants explored their different approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of head injury. And their vehicle for this was the fatal head injury sustained by King Henri during a jousting tournament. Pare’s countercoup injury theory won the day at post-mortem.

By George Stubbshere / здесь, Public Domain, Link

 7. Paul Broca versus Marc Dax

This is a rivalry between two giants of French neuroscience, and it is all about who got there first. Localisation of speech and language to the left hemisphere is now generally attributed to the work of Paul Broca. In recognition of this, the brain’s speech area, area 44, is named after Broca. By some accounts however, there was another pretender to the throne in the form of Marc Dax. It is argued that Dax sent his paper for publication six weeks before Broca published his. And it is even whispered that the establishment connived to delay publishing Dax’s paper, to the advantage of Broca. After his death, Dax’s son, Gustave, tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to convince French Academy of Sciences and to the French Academy of Medicine to acknowledge his father. Some are arguing that Broca and Dax should share the recognition, calling for the theory of lateralisation of language to be renamed ‘the theory of Dax-Broca‘.

By Hendrik Hondius I (Flanders, Duffel, 1573-circa 1649) – Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31723256-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/234686 archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 22 January 2019), Public Domain, Link

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Undoubtedly similar rivalries are still playing out today, but perhaps in a more restrained way. As the low lying fruit have all been picked, current squabbles are frequently banal. But they are not always harmless as indicated by the St George’s Hospital heart unit feud. But healthy rivalries help the progress of science, pushing the competing rivals to better refine and defend their theories.

 

By Giuseppe Castiglionehttp://theme.npm.edu.tw/npmawards/langshining/pages/giuseppecastiglione/ch/page-4.html#main, Public Domain, Link

You may explore more rivalries in the following sources I used for this blog post:

Do you have any rivalries to share? Please drop a comment!

6 exciting neuroscience discoveries that will shape neurology

Allan Ajifo on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14601014695
Allan Ajifo on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14601014695

 

The brain is a mystery and that is why neurologists find it fascinating. The more we know, the more it tantalises us with its hidden gems. Great neurologists have waxed lyrical about the ability of the brain to elude all efforts to fully understand it. Santiago Ramon y Cajal for instance says:

“The brain is a world

consisting of a number of unexplored continents

and great stretches of unknown territory” 

Non-neurologists are similarly awed by the brain. Emerson M. Pugh for example says:

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it,

we would be so simple that we couldn’t”

Neuroscience and neuroanatomy are at the forefront of exploring this great unknown; the research output from these fields is mind-boggling (pardon the intended pun). But which recent findings are most likely to change neurological practice in the near future? Here are my top 6.

1. Newly discovered brain lymphatic system

"Gray602" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below)Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 602. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray602.png#/media/File:Gray602.png
“Gray602” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below)Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 602. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray602.png#/media/File:Gray602.png

A recent report that researchers have discovered a previously unknown lymphatic system in the brain is to say the least shocking. That these lymphatic channels have eluded the sharpest eyes and most focussed microscopes for centuries goes to show how mysterious the brain indeed is. Why has it stayed undiscovered for so long? Apparently because it is tucked behind a major blood vessel! Hiding in plain sight says one review article. The discovery is so important that one article says it will have the scientists rewriting textbooks. 

The finding however raises hope of better treatments for some neurological diseases. Because the lymphatic system is closely linked to the immune system, multiple sclerosis (MS) is one potential beneficiary of this discovery. Because lymphatics also act as drainage systems, there are implications for conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Hopefully this brain lymphatic system could be manipulated to clear the accumulated abnormal proteins that cause AD and other neurodegenerative diseases.

2. Newly discovered brain networks

"White Matter Connections Obtained with MRI Tractography" by Xavier Gigandet et. al. - Gigandet X, Hagmann P, Kurant M, Cammoun L, Meuli R, et al. (2008) Estimating the Confidence Level of White Matter Connections Obtained with MRI Tractography. PLoS ONE 3(12): e4006. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004006. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography.png#/media/File:White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography.png
“White Matter Connections Obtained with MRI Tractography” by Xavier Gigandet et. al. – Gigandet X, Hagmann P, Kurant M, Cammoun L, Meuli R, et al. (2008) Estimating the Confidence Level of White Matter Connections Obtained with MRI Tractography. PLoS ONE 3(12): e4006. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004006. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography.png#/media/File:White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography.png

 

The brain’s extensive connections is one of its enduring and fascinating mysteries. The winding fibers and tracts, meandering and looping around each other, demonstrate the brain’s complexity. As soon as we think we have grasped it all, along comes a discovery that causes a paradigm shift. This is illustrated by the report of the discovery of a new brain network involved in memory processing. This Parietal Memory Network (PMN), in the brain’s left hemisphere, responds differentially to new and to old information. This may have relevance for cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). For the more technical details of the network, the paper is published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience.

3. Newly discovered brain connection

Synapse by Peter Morgan on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/moogan/5997439279
Synapse by Peter Morgan on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/moogan/5997439279

 

In a similar vein is the discovery of previously unknown brain fiber tracts called the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF). This new ‘brain corridor‘ is involved in visual processing. The research paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), says the VOF is important in the perception of words and faces, amongst other things, and is ‘involved in the control of eye movements, attention, and motion perception. The main benefit of this finding is the improvement of our understanding of how the brain learns to read.

4. Newly discovered brain activity in deep coma

By Wojder (Own work(own work by uploader)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Wojder (Own work(own work by uploader)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The common assumption that the electrical activity of the comatose brain flatlines on the electroencephalogram (EEG) now appears to be a misconception. This is according to a report of the discovery of a previously unknown electrical brain activity in deep coma suggests. One journal reported this as the discovery of life after brain death!

These electrical waves, seen in deep coma, are called Nu complexes. They are well-described in the original paper in PLoS One. This finding will alter our definition of brain death which relies very much on the absence of organised brain electrical activity. Another implication is for patients whose medical conditions require that they are put into a coma; this finding will potentially guide the anaesthetist to apply the best form of induced coma. 

5. Newly discovered brain cell type 

 

I thought I learnt all the different types brain cells or neurones that exist when I was in medical school. The mysterious brain however has a joker at every corner. The report of the discovery of a new type of neurone should come as a surprise, but by now we have learnt not to be shocked by new brain discoveries. The strange thing about these cells, found in the hippocampus of the the brains of mice, is that they have direct connections between their axons (the single long tail) and their dendrites (the smaller hair like projections). This connection by-passes the nerve body; this direct connection enhances the strength of the signals the cell generates. The reason for this peculiarity is not clear but, because the hippocampus is the seat of memory, I guess there are implications for cognitive disorders.

6. Newly discovered brain repair enhancers

We know that the brain repairs itself (neuroplasticity), and that brain fibers make new connections even if this occurs very slowly. What is new is that these processes can be enhanced or accelerated by external agents. Two interesting substances recently reported are psilocybin and curry. Yes, healing mushrooms and spices!

It appears that Psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) can establish stable connections between parts of the brain which do not normally communicate well. The research on this is published under the title ‘Homological Scaffolds of Brain Functional Networks‘. The paper describes how psilocybin helps in nerve re-wiring with the potential implications for the treatment of depression and addiction. A bit paradoxical, using an addictive substance to treat addiction; but hey, this is the brain we are talking about!

"Curcuma longa roots" by Simon A. Eugster - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg#/media/File:Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg
“Curcuma longa roots” by Simon A. Eugster – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg#/media/File:Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg

 

Curry on the other hand contains tumeric which contains tumerone. Tumerone has now been shown to help with nerve growth repair, and it does this by causing proliferation of brain nerve cells. The research itself is titled ‘Aromatic-tumerone induces neural stem cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo‘. It is a study in rats, but are human brains very different? Potential beneficiaries are all the neurodegenerative diseases which neurologists have singularly failed to reverse.

Enough food for thought,  but if you want to keep up with neuroscience findings, here are the most popular neuroscience blogs.

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