Can someone who made a remarkable series of seminal discoveries about the structure of the nervous system but who steadfastly refused to consider alternative interpretations of his data be considered the founder of modern neuroscience? This question is a central theme of Golgi: A Biography of the Founder of Modern Neuroscience by Paolo Mazzarello, recently translated into English by Aldo Badiani and Henry A. Buchtel. In 1906, Camillo Golgi and Ramon y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize for their work on the histology of the nervous system. Golgi had developed a revolutionary staining technique (“the dark reaction”) and used it on sections of nervous system tissues to demonstrate the detailed structure of neurons and glial cells with a resolution never before achieved. He clearly showed the relationship between dendrites, the neuron cell body, and axons. Nevertheless, Ramon y Cajal proposed individual neurons to be the fundamental cellular units of the nervous system and that signals traveled from 1 neuron to another (the “neuron doctrine”), whereas Golgi remained convinced that the complexity of human behavior and emotions could not be explained by such a simplistic model. Despite emerging evidence to the contrary, he steadfastly maintained that communication in the central nervous system was mediated via a “diffuse nerve network” model whereby nerve cells were physically interconnected and, in effect, communicated in a manner reminiscent of spreading waves of electrical activity that would activate broad neural networks. The neuron doctrine of Cajal would not be formally confirmed until the advent of electron microscopy, although hints from peripheral nerve regeneration, embryological analyses, and early tissue culture experiments performed during Golgi's lifetime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries challenged Golgi's reticular model of the nervous system. Only recently has the emergence of the columnar organization of the cortex and neural network theory provided some credence to Golgi's notion that higher cerebral functions must require more complex neuronal interactions.
Sherman LS, Back SA. Golgi: A Biography of the Founder of Modern Neuroscience. Arch Neurol. 2011;68(4):538–539. doi:10.1001/archneurol.2011.33
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