Although it seems obvious to us today that the brain is made up of billions of cells called “neurons,” this was not so when Spainard Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Italian Camillo Golgi were children. When they were growing up in the mid 1800s, it had only been a couple decades since Czech anatomist Johann Purkinje had been able to identify neurons using a technique of thinly slicing the cerebellum so that the cells would be visible under a microscope.
Both Ramón y Cajal and Golgi had fathers in the medical field. Golgi planned for a future career in medicine while Ramón y Cajal had interests in art and gymnastics as well as science and anatomy.
Golgi began his studies with an interest in psychiatry, but grew impatient when he found the psychiatric community was not able to make connections between mental disorders and physical lesions in the brain, as Golgi theorized must exist. At the time there was not enough known about the structure of the brain to make any conclusive connections.
Golgi next found work as chief of medicine in a hospital, but was not overly enthusiastic about clinical work. However, he was excited to turn the hospital kitchen into a makeshift laboratory where he did his own experiments after hours. After much trial and error he came up with a staining technique that allowed made the membranes of nerve cells in his sample to stand out as black silhouettes against a yellow background. This technique was achieved by first exposing samples of nervous tissue to potassium dichromate, and then immersing them in a silver nitrate solution.
Ramón y Cajal used this staining process in his work, and later improved on it by adjusting the concentrations of the formula, and through discovering that embryonic brain tissue was easier to stain due to a lack of myelin.
After 6 years of research on various neuronal tissues, Ramón y Cajal came to the conclusion that the brain is made of individual cells, an idea which he called the neuron doctrine. This clashed with Golgi’s theory, called the reticular theory, which theorized that the nervous system existed as a single continuous network.
Ramón y Cajal’s theory won out in the end, and modern electron microscopy makes it clear that the brain is indeed a network of individual cells which talk to each other, rather than a continuous network. However, Ramón y Cajal would never had made this discovery were it not for Golgi’s staining technique, which also continues to be used in modern times.
For their contributions to the field, both neuroscientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1906.
Both scientists were also diligent writers and artists, leaving us with many detailed images of neurons and brain structures. Their work was an important foundation onto which the field of neuroscience we know and love today was built upon!
Ramón y Cajal vs Golgi begins on Thursday, December 5th at 11 AM ET and runs for 24 hours. We’ll see you there!
Art by Daniela Gamba