King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Diagram showing central sensory channels from Santiago Ramón y Cajal's Histologie du syst?me nerveux de l’homme et des vertébrés. Paris: A. Maloine, 1909 Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/CajDiagram showing central sensory channels from Santiago Ramón y Cajal's Histologie du syst?me nerveux de l’homme et des vertébrés. Paris: A. Maloine, 1909 Institute of Psychiatry Historical Collection h/CajThe Spanish neuroanatomist and microscopist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1906 with the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi (1843-1926).

Golgi’s recticular theory (that the nerve cells were connected by a network of fibres conducting impulses from cell to cell) was disproved by the technique of staining using silver chromate. Cajal applied this technique to embryonic, as opposed to adult structures, as he found that it worked best in mammals without a fatty myelin sheath around the nerves. As Cajal was a keen comparative anatomist, he discovered that humans share the same complex neuronal structures with other animals.

Cajal concluded, contrary to the received recticular theory, that each nerve cell was a self-contained unit with an axon which reached out but was not continuous with another cell. The cell, not the fibres, formed the connexions with other tissues. The axons were insulated against each other, with ‘valves’ where one cell met another. His work thus clarified the nature of the structures which formed the building blocks of the nervous system.

He extended his studies to the cerebral cortex, and, by ascribing specific structural patterns of the neurons to different areas of the cerebral cortex, was able to give histological support to the theory of cerebral localisation. The problem now was a neurophysiological one: what was the mechanism by which nervous impulses were communicated? In other words, if neurons really were independent of each other, how did the nervous system co-ordinate itself? That was a question which Charles Scott Sherrington would answer.

The copy of this book, from the historical collection of the Institute of Psychiatry, has the library stamp of the Pathological Laboratories at Claybury, where Sir Frederick Mott worked for many years.

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