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Books, Journals, New Media
August 10, 2005

Neuroscience, History

Author Affiliations

Books, Journals, New Media Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA; Journal Review Editor: Brenda L. Seago, MLS, MA, Medical College of Virginia Campus, Virginia Commonwealth University.

JAMA. 2005;294(6):745-746. doi:10.1001/jama.294.6.745-b

During the last two decades of the 19th century, two theories competed to describe how the brain functioned at the microscopic level. The reticular theory held that the brain was functionally one big cell; protoplasm flowed from the cerebral cortex to the spinal cord through cellular processes. The neuronal theory held that brain cells, or neurons, were separate; one cell contacted another only by means of a special connection, later called the synapse.

Camillo Golgi, who developed the eponymous silver stain that made possible all subsequent advances in neurohistology, championed the reticular theory. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, using Golgi’s stain to pursue detailed and artistic studies of nerve cell processes, became the champion of the neuronal theory. By the time the two shared the Nobel Prize in 1906, the scientific community had proclaimed the neuronal theory victorious. Developments in the 20th century have shown that in many ways the brain does function as a unit; brain cells are anatomically separate but functionally so closely related as to bring Golgi’s old ideas back into play.

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