Who are you Thankful For? Ramon y Cahal

Nov 23 2010 Published by under Academia

Sci will admit she's actually thankful for a LOT of people in science. Her mentors, official and unofficial, the greats in her field, her colleagues, LOTS of people. She is thankful for her parents for encouraging her to go into science once she expressed the desire (they always thought I'd be an English major).

But today, she wants to talk specifically about one man, without whom Sci's research (and the research of lots of other people) simply wouldn't exist.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

Cajal is a scientist mentioned with a certain amount of reverence by most neuroscientists. Or at least it's a name that's spoken often. There are cells of Cajal, whenever you hear Golgi staining talked about, you hear about Cajal as well (heck, he's got an asteroid named after him). Cajal was a Spanish neuroscientist who was a proponent of the neuron theory, and some people think of him as the founder of neuroscience. The neuron theory, which is now as well established as gravity, is a theory involving what the brain is made of, and how it communicates. It goes like this:

1) The brain is made up of cells. These are called neurons.
2) The neurons have specialized features (dangit I really need to do a post on the neuron!)
3) Neurons differ in size, shape, structure, and function
4) Nerves connect each other and communicate through these connections
5) There is a break where neurons touch (the synapse), and the communication across is, though it can be of various types (like excitatory or inhibitory), must always be of the same type (this one has become more complicated as we've found that cells can release several types of neurotransmitter).

Reading this NOW, it seems...really really obvious. We have pictures of neurons, we can see them. Their structure is really obvious. Also cool looking.

But at the time of Cajal (1887), this wasn't established at all. There was a divide between the neuron theory and the reticular theory, which was an idea that, instead of many little cells, the brain and nervous system were a mash of one HUGE cell with tons of processes. This was the theory held to by Camillo Golgi, and he and Cajal apparently never convinced each other, even when they both won the Nobel Prize...together. Oh well.

Cajal not only worked with the neuron theory, he was one of the first to hypothesize that neurons were polarized, and that signals traveled by means of electricity. Though his hypothesis was really simplistic, he turned out to be at least partly right.

And he wasn't just a scientist! He wrote an autobiography, as well as his own short works of science fiction, which he wrote under a pseud "Dr. Bacteria". A guy after my own heart.

So today I am thankful for Cajal, who did so much work to popularize the neuron theory. My work wouldn't exist today without him!

Who are you thankful for in science?

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