History of Neuroscience


This review traces the history of neuroscience from its origins to recent times. Early physicians recognized that the brain controls sensation and movement, learning and thought, and that communication between the brain and the body is by way of the spinal cord. A fundamental principle of nervous system structure is the neuron doctrine, the idea that brain and spinal cord are made up of individual elements called neurons, which may touch one another but do not fuse. Communication among neurons and activation of muscles is accomplished in most cases by release of a chemical transmitter substance. Understanding of the nature of electrical signalling in the nervous system culminated in the discovery of the ionic basis of the action potential. Early observations of the effect of brain injury on speech and language, sensation and movement revealed that different parts of the brain and spinal cord are specialized for different functions. The development of techniques for single‐cell recording in animals and computer‐based imaging in humans showed that there are multiple cortical areas dedicated to further processing of the sensory message, and control of movement.

Keywords: neuron doctrine; functional localization; transmitter substance; Golgi stain; nerve conduction

Figure 1.

A lion hunted and killed by arrows. Stone panel from the North Palace of Asurbanipal, Nineveh, Iraq. Circa 645 bc. Note that the hind legs are paralyzed and limp because of the spinal cord injury, whereas the forelegs are normally extended. Reproduced with permission of The Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 2.

Cross‐section of a peripheral nerve which has been stained for myelin. The figure shows axons of several different diameters. Osmic acid staining.

Figure 3.

Nerve‐muscle junction. The motor nerve breaks up into smaller fascicles and attaches to the muscle cells by a special motor end‐plate. Gold chloride stain.

Figure 4.

A Golgi‐stained cell in the cerebral cortex. The pale red objects are other cells that have been counterstained with a neutral red dye. Only a small percentage of the cells are labelled, allowing one to see the full extent of the dendrites and the beginning of the axon.


Further Reading

Clarke E and O'Malley CD (1968) The Human Brain and Spinal Cord. Berkley: University of California press.

Finger S (1994) Origins of Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University press.

Polyak S (1957) The Vertebrate Visual System. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Glickstein, Mitchell(Dec 2008) History of Neuroscience. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003076]