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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Charles Scott Sherrington

Spinal and vagosympathetic nerve sections on a dog, from Charles Scott Sherrington's The integrative action of the nervous system. London: Archibald Constable, 1906 [KCSMD Historical Collection QP372 SHE]Spinal and vagosympathetic nerve sections on a dog, from Charles Scott Sherrington's The integrative action of the nervous system. London: Archibald Constable, 1906 [KCSMD Historical Collection QP372 SHE]Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952) synthesised the findings of the histologists of the nervous system, such as Cajal, with the research of those who had concentrated on the connection between the nervous system and the muscles, such as Marshall Hall and Sir Charles Bell.

In other words, he brought the brain and the muscles together in a unified explanation of human co-ordination. In his own words, he showed that ‘the nervous synthesis of an individual from what without it were a mere aggregation of commensal organs resolves itself into co-ordination by reflex action.’

Although Sherrington placed great stress on the cerebral cortex as the crucial location for our distance receptors to trigger motor acts, his principal interest lay in the theories of inhibition versus excitation and of reciprocal innervation. For example, in the case of the knee jerk, two processes are going on at once: the active excitation of the muscle which executes the movement and the active inhibition of the muscle which opposes it.

Sherrington had independently come to Cajal’s conclusion that there was a physiological barrier (which he termed the ‘synapse’) between cells which allowed impulses to pass. Impulses from receptor points would reach muscles through a common motor nerve, but the inhibitory action of the synapses (which were the integrating mechanism) stopped dissimilar reflexes from using the common neuronal path simultaneously, thus disturbing the normal functioning of the body. The knitting together of reflex actions in the muscles worked by numerous excitatory and inhibitory actions of the synapses.

Our contemporary view of the functioning of the nervous system depends much on Sherrington’s research. Pavlov’s research on conditioned and unconditioned reflexes (which is more psychophysiology than neuroscience) complements Sherrington’s work, but does not depend on it.

Sherrington was briefly lecturer in physiology at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, and worked alongside Sir Frederick Mott at Liverpool University. This copy of his work has the bookplate of Herbert Willoughby Lyle (1870-1956), professor of ophthalmology and Dean of the medical school at King’s College Hospital.

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