The FIRSTS: Increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere results in global warming (1896)

Few people seem to know that although global warming and climate change are hotly debated topics right now (at least on the left side of the Atlantic) the effect of CO2 levels on the planet’s surface temperature was investigated and calculated more than a century ago. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases responsible for the greenhouse effect, which was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824 (the effect, that is).

Let’s start with a terminology clarification. Whereas the term ‘global warming’ was coined by Wallace S. Broecker in 1975, the term ‘climate change’ underwent a more fluidic transformation in the ’70s from ‘inadvertent climate modification’ to ‘climatic change’ to a more consistent use of ‘climate change’ by Jule Charney in 1979, according to NASA. The same source tells us:

“Global warming refers to surface temperature increases, while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect”.

But before NASA there was one Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927). Dr. Arrhenius was a Swedish physical chemist who received the Nobel Prize in 1903 for uncovering the role of ions in how electrical current is conducted in chemical solutions.

S.A. Arrhenius was the first to quantify the variations of our planet’s surface temperature as a direct result of the amount of CO2 (which he calls carbonic acid, long story) present in the atmosphere. For those – admittedly few – nitpickers that say his views on the greenhouse effect were somewhat simplistic and his calculations were incorrect I’d say cut him a break: he didn’t have the incredible amount of data provided by the satellites or computers, nor the work of thousands of scientists over a century to back him up. Which they do. Kind of. Well, the idea, anyway, not the math. Well, some of the math. Let me explain.

First, let me tell you that I haven’t managed to pass past page 3 of the 39 pages of creative mathematics, densely packed tables, parameter assignments, and convoluted assumptions of Arrhenius (1896). Luckily, I convinced a spectroscopist to take a crack at the original paper since there is a lot of spectroscopy in it and then enlighten me.

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The photo was taken in 1887 and shows (standing, from the left): Walther Nernst (Nobel in Chemistry), Heinrich Streintz, Svante Arrhenius, Richard Hiecke; (sitting, from the left): Eduard Aulinger, Albert von Ettingshausen, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ignaz Klemenčič, Victor Hausmanninger. Source: Universität Graz. License: PD via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, despite his many accomplishments, including being credited with laying the foundations of a new field (physical chemistry), Arrhenius was first and foremost a mathematician. So he employed a lot of tedious mathematics (by hand!) together with some hefty guessing along with what was known at the time about Earth’s infrared radiation, solar radiation, water vapor and CO2 absorption, temperature of the Moon,  greenhouse effect, and some uncalibrated spectra taken by his predecessors to figure out if “the mean temperature of the ground [was] in any way influenced by the presence of the heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere” (p. 237). Why was he interested in this? We find out only at page 267 after a lot of aforesaid dreary mathematics where he finally shares this with us:

“I certainly not have undertaken these tedious calculations if an extraordinary interest had not been connected with them. In the Physical Society of Stockholm there have been occasionally very lively discussions on the probable causes of the Ice Age”.

So Arrhenius was interested to find out if the fluctuations of CO2 levels could have caused the Ice Ages. And yes, he thinks that could have happened. I don’t know enough about climate science to tell you if this particular conclusion of his is correct today. But what he managed to accomplish though was to provide for the first time a way to mathematically calculate the amount of rise in temperature due the rise of CO2 levels. In other words, he found a direct relationship between the variations of CO2 and temperature. Today, it turns out that his math was incorrect because he left out some other variables that influence the global temperature that were discovered and/or understood later (like the thickness of the atmosphere, the rate of ocean absorption  of CO2 and others which I won’t pretend I understand). Nevertheless, Arrhenius was the first to point out to the following relationship, which, by and large, is still relevant today:

“Thus if the quantity of carbonic acid increased in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression” (p. 267).

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P.S. Technically, Joseph Fourier should be credited with the discovery of global warming by increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in 1824, but Arrhenius quantified it so I credited him. Feel fee to debate :).

REFERENCE: Arrhenius, S. (April 1896). XXXI. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series), 49 (251): 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786449608620846. FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 24 June 2017

The FIRSTS: The Name of Myelin (1854)

One reason why I don’t post more often is that I have such a hard time deciding what to cover (Hint: send me stuff YOU find awesome). Most of the cool and new stuff is already covered by big platforms with full-time employees and I try to stay away of the media-grabbers. Mostly. Some papers I find so cool that it doesn’t matter that professional science journalists have already covered them and I too jump on the wagon with my meager contribution. Anyway, here is a glimpse on how my train of thought goes on inspiration-less days.

Inner monologue: Check the usual journals’ current issues. Nothing catches my eye. Maybe I’ll feature a historical. Open Wikipedia front page and see what happened today throughout history. Aha, apparently Babinski died in 1932. He’s the one who described the Babinski’s sign. Normally, when the sole of the foot is stroked, the big toe flexes inwards, towards the sole. If it extends upwards, then that’s a sure sign of neurological damage, the Babinski’s sign. But healthy infants can have that sign too not because they have neurological damage, but because their corticospinal neurons are not fully myelinated. Myelin, who discovered that? Probably Schwann. Quick search on PubMed. Too many. Restrict to ‘history”. I hate the search function on PubMed, it brings either to many or no hits, no matter the parameters. Ah, look, Virchow. Interesting. Aha. Find the original reference. Aha. Springer charges 40 bucks for a paper published in 1854?! The hell with that! I’m not even going to check if I have institutional access. Get the pdf from other sources. It’s in German. Bummer. Go to Highwire. Find recent history of myelin. Mielinization? Myelination? Myelinification? All have hits… Get “Fundamental Neuroscience” off of the shelf and check… aha, myelination. Ok. Look at the pretty diagram with the saltatory conduction! Enough! Go back to Virchow. Does it have pictures, maybe I can navigate the legend? Nope. Check if any German speaking friends are online. Nope, they’re probably asleep, which is what I should be doing. Drat. Refine Highwire search. Evrika! “Hystory of Myelin” by Boullerne, 2016. Got the author manuscript. Hurray. Read. Write.

Myelinated fibers, a.k.a. white matter has been observed and described by various anatomists, as early as the 16th century, Boullerne (2016) informs us. But the name of myelin was given only in 1854 by Rudolph Virchow, a physician with a rich academic and public life. Although Virchow introduced the term to distinguish between bone marrow and the medullary substance, paradoxically, he managed to muddy waters even more because he did not restrict the usage of the term mylein to … well, myelin. He used it also to refer to substances in blood cells and egg’s yolk and spleen and, frankly, from the quotes provided in the paper, I cannot make heads or tails of what Virchow thought myelin was. The word myelin comes form the Greek myelos or muelos, which means marrow.

Boullerne (2016) obviously did a lot of research, as the 53-page account is full of quotes from original references. Being such a scholar on the history of myelin I have no choice but to believe her when she says: “In 1868, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) used myelin (myéline) in what can be considered its first correct attribution.”

So even if Virchow coined the term, he was using it incorrectly! Nevertheless, in 1858 he correctly identified the main role of myelin: electrical insulation of the axon. Genial insight for the time.

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I love historical reviews of sciency stuff. This one is a ‘must-have’ for any biologist or neuroscientist. Chemists and physicists, too, don’t shy away; the paper has something for you too, like myelin’s biochemistry or its birefringence properties.

Reference: Boullerne, AI (Sep 2016, Epub 8 Jun 2016). The history of myelin. Experimental Neurology, 283(Pt B): 431-45. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2016.06.005. ARTICLE

Original Reference: Virchow R. (Dec 1854). Ueber das ausgebreitete Vorkommen einer dem Nervenmark analogen Substanz in den thierischen Geweben. Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medicin, 6(4): 562–572. doi:10.1007/BF02116709. ARTICLE

P.S. I don’t think is right that Springer can retain the copyright for the Virchow paper and charge $39.95 for it. I don’t think they have the copyright for it anyway, despite their claims, because the paper is 162 years old. I am aware of no German or American copyright law that extends for so long. So, if you need it for academic purposes, write to me and thou shall have it.

By Neuronicus, 29 October 2016

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The FIRSTS: the von Economo neurons (1881, 1904, 1926)

A von Economo neuron, also known as a spindle neuron, is a unique cell with several interesting characteristics:

1) It has a long axon and on the opposite side of the cell body has only one long dendrite, resembling a spindle and hence the nickname.

2) It is to be found only in humans, apes, elephants, dolphins, whales, and a few other animals known for their intricate social structure.

3) In humans, they exist only in the frontal part of the brain.

4) It is thought to be important for social awareness.

In all fairness, these cells should be called Betz cells, or at least Ramón y Cajal cells because these neuroanatomists mentioned their existence in 1881 and 1904, respectively. But Betz already has his own neurons, and Ramón y Cajal, well… his fame is established already. But von Economo “made a more complete description of their morphology and mapped their specific locations in human cortex” (Allman et al., 2011)

So what do we know about von Economo? Quite a lot, thanks to Triarhou, an excellent biographer. Constantin von Economo (1876–1931) was born in Brăila, Romania to a wealthy family of Greek descent. Shorty after his birth, the family moved from Romania to Austria where the father acquired a “von” in front of his name by way of elevation to the rank of baron.

Von Economo went to medical school  in Vienna, traveled a lot across the globe, graduated, spent some more time here and there learning psychiatry, physiology, neurology and such with some Big Names, then returned to Vienna where he followed the classic academic path (for his time). He was a prolific writer, having published at least 139 scientific works in a relatively short time.

Besides the spindle neurons, he is also known for publishing an awesome brain atlas in 1925 (with Georg Koskinas) and for investigating in detail a mysterious and weird disease, encephalitis lethargica (the ‘von Economo disease’). This disease has unknown causes to the day, partly because it is very difficult to study, having virtually disappeared form the face of the Earth after a furious epidemic in 1926.  But about that enigma some other time.

For now, enjoy von Economo’s drawings.

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Composite image of the four drawings by von Economo (1926) in doi:10.1007/BF02970950.

Notes: 1) One last thing. Although according to Springer’s website the copyright for the von Economo paper I’m citing should have expired, Springer still charges a lot of money to obtain it (if you don’t have an institutional license like some of us, the fortunates, that is). I have attempted to contact Springer about it with no luck. Anyway, if you want it, email me at scientiaportal@gmail.com. It’s been more than 70 years since the death of the author, so it should be public domain.

2) I have no idea why people reference the Ramón y Cajal’s Textura del Sistema Nervioso del Hombre y de los Vertebrados as published in 1889. I got it from Google Books and it says 1904 on it.

References:

  1. von Economo, C. (1926). Eine neue Art Spezialzellen des Lobus cinguli und Lobus insulae (‘A new kind of special cells in the cingulum and insula’). Zeitschr. Ges. Neurol Psychiatr (Berlin), 100: 706–712. DOI: 10.1007/BF02970950. ARTICLE
  2. Allman JM, Tetreault NA, Hakeem AY, Manaye KF, Semendeferi K, Erwin JM, Park S, Goubert V, & Hof PR (Apr 2011). The von Economo neurons in the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortex. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1225:59-71. PMID: 21534993. PMCID: PMC3140770. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06011.x. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF 
  3. Triarhou, LH (14 Apr 2006, Epub 28 Feb 2006). The signalling contributions of Constantin von Economo to basic, clinical and evolutionary neuroscience. Brain Research Bulletin, 69 (3): 223–243. PMID: 16564418, DOI: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2006.02.001. ARTICLE

By Neuronicus, 25 September 2016

Who invented optogenetics?

Wayne State University. Ever heard of it? Probably not. How about Zhuo-Hua Pan? No? No bell ringing? Let’s try a different approach: ever heard of Stanford University? Why, yes, it’s one of the most prestigious and famous universities in the world. And now the last question: do you know who Karl Deisseroth is? If you’re not a neuroscientist, probably not. But if you are, then you would know him as the father of optogenetics.

Optogenetics is the newest tool in the biology kit that allows you to control the way a cell behaves by shining a light on it (that’s the opto part). Prior to that, the cell in question must be made to express a protein that is sensitive to light (i.e. rhodopsin) either by injecting a virus or breeding genetically modified animals that express that protein (that’s the genetics part).

If you’re watching the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, then you would also be familiar with Deisseroth’s name as he may be awarded the Nobel soon for inventing optogenetics. Only that, strictly speaking, he did not. Or, to be fair and precise at the same time, he did, but he was not the first one. Dr. Pan from Wayne State University was. And he got scooped.98.png

The story is at length imparted to us by Anna Vlasits in STAT and republished in Scientific American. In short, Dr. Pan, an obscure name in an obscure university from an ill-famed city (Detroit), does research for years in an unglamorous field of retina and blindness. He figured, quite reasonably, that restoring the proteins which sense light in the human eye (i.e. photoreceptor proteins) could restore vision in the congenitally blind. The problem is that human photoreceptor proteins are very complicated and efforts to introduce them into retinas of blind people have proven unsuccessful. But, in 2003, a paper was published showing how an algae protein that senses light, called channelrhodopsin (ChR), can be expressed into mammalian cells without loss of function.

So, in 2004, Pan got a colleague from Salus University (if Wayne State University is a medium-sized research university, then Salus is a really tiny, tiny little place) to engineer a ChR into a virus which Pan then injected in rodent retinal neurons, in vivo. After 3-4 weeks he obtained the expression of the protein and the expression was stable for at least 1 year, showing that the virus works nicely. Then his group did a bunch of electrophysiological recordings (whole cell patch-clamp and voltage clamp) to see if shining light on those neurons makes them fire. It did. Then, they wanted to see if ChR is for sure responsible for this firing and not some other proteins so they increased the intensity of the blue light that the ChR is known to sense and observed that the cell responded with increased firing. Now that they saw the ChR works in normal rodents, next they expressed the ChR by virally infecting mice who were congenitally blind and repeated their experiments. The electrophysiological experiments showed that it worked. But you see with your brain, not with your retina, so the researchers looked to see if these cells that express ChR project from the retina to the brain and they found their axons in lateral geniculate and superior colliculus, two major brain areas important for vision. Then, they recorded from these areas and the brain responded when blue light, but not yellow or other colors, was shone on the retina. The brain of congenitally blind mice without ChR does not respond regardless of the type of light shone on their retinas. But does that mean the mouse was able to see? That remains to be seen (har har) in future experiments. But the Pan group did demonstrate that they can control neurons by light.

All in all, a groundbreaking paper. So the Pan group was not off the mark when they submitted it to Nature on November 25, 2004. As Anna Vlasits reports in the Exclusive, Nature told Pan to submit to a more specialized journal, like Nature Neuroscience, which then rejected it. Pan submitted then to the Journal of Neuroscience, which also rejected it. He submitted it then to Neuron on November 29, 2005, which finally accepted it. Got published on April 6, 2006. Deisseroth’s paper was submitted to Nature Neuroscience on May 12, 2005, accepted on July, and published on August 14, 2005… His group infected rat hippocampal neurons cultured in a Petri dish with a virus carrying the ChR and then they did some electrophysiological recordings on those neurons while shining lights of different wavelengths on them, showing that these cells can be controlled by light.

There’s more on the saga with patent filings and a conference where Pan showed the ChR data in May 2005 and so on, you can read all about it in Scientific American. The magazine is just hinting to what I will say outright, loud and clear: Pan didn’t get published because of his and his institution’s lack of fame. Deisseroth did because of the opposite. That’s all. This is not about squabbles about whose work is more elegant, who presented his work as a scientific discovery or a technical report or whose title is more catchy, whose language is more boisterous or native English-speaker or luck or anything like that. It is about bias and, why not?, let’s call a spade a spade, discrimination. Nature and Journal of Neuroscience are not caught doing this for the first time. Not by a long shot. The problem is that they are still doing it, that is: discriminating against scientific work presented to them based on the name of the authors and their institutions. Personally, so I don’t get comments along the lines of the fox and the grapes, I have worked at both high profile and low profile institutions. And I have seen the difference not in the work, but in the reception.

That’s my piece for today.

Source:  STAT, Scientific American.

References:

1) Bi A, Cui J, Ma YP, Olshevskaya E, Pu M, Dizhoor AM, & Pan ZH (6 April 2006). Ectopic expression of a microbial-type rhodopsin restores visual responses in mice with photoreceptor degeneration. Neuron, 50(1): 23-33. PMID: 16600853. PMCID: PMC1459045. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.02.026. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

2) Boyden ES, Zhang F, Bamberg E, Nagel G, & Deisseroth K. (Sep 2005, Epub 2005 Aug 14). Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity. Nature Neuroscience, 8(9):1263-1268. PMID: 16116447. DOI: 10.1038/nn1525. doi:10.1038/nn1525. ARTICLE 

By Neuronicus, 11 September 2016

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The FIRSTS: Theory of Mind in non-humans (1978)

Although any farmer or pet owner throughout the ages would probably agree that animals can understand the intentions of their owners, not until 1978 has this knowledge been scientifically proven.

Premack & Woodruff (1978) performed a very simple experiment in which they showed videos to a female adult chimpanzee named Sarah involving humans facing various problems, from simple (can’t reach a banana) to complex (can’t get out of the cage). Then, the chimps were shown pictures of the human with the tool that solved the problem (a stick to reach the banana, a key for the cage) along with pictures where the human was performing actions that were not conducive to solving his predicament. The experimenter left the room while the chimp made her choice. When she did, she rang a bell to summon the experimenter back in the room, who then examined the chimp’s choice and told the chimp whether her choice was right or wrong. Regardless of the choice, the chimp was awarded her favorite food. The chimp’s choices were almost always correct when the actor was its favourite trainer, but not so much when the actor was a person she disliked.

Because “no single experiment can be all things to all objections, but the proper combination of results from [more] experiments could decide the issue nicely” (p. 518), the researchers did some more experiments which were variations of the first one designed to figure out what the chimp was thinking. The authors go on next to discuss their findings at length in the light of two dominant theories of the time, mentalism and behaviorism, ruling in favor of the former.

Of course, the paper has some methodological flaws that would not pass the rigors of today’s reviewers. That’s why it has been replicated multiple times in more refined ways. Nor is the distinction between behaviorism and cognitivism a valid one anymore, things being found out to be, as usual, more complex and intertwined than that. Thirty years later, the consensus was that chimps do indeed have a theory of mind in that they understand intentions of others, but they lack understanding of false beliefs (Call & Tomasello, 2008).

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References:

1. Premack D & Woodruff G (Dec. 1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1 (4): 515-526. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00076512. ARTICLE

2. Call J & Tomasello M (May 2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(5): 187-192. PMID: 18424224 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010. ARTICLE  | FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 20 August 2016

THE FIRSTS: The word ‘scientist’ (1834)

Scientist, by any other name…

History of science is, unfortunately, not among the mandatory classes required for earning a diploma that allows oneself to be called a scientist. Worrisomely, nor is Logic as a formal class. All the more the pity because in the Middle Ages, when the word science entered the English language, to have scientific knowledge meant you have arrived at it by following the Aristotelian way of logical reasoning (a.k.a deductions and inductions). To be fair, the word existed already in Romance languages with the same meaning: new knowledge obtained by applying the rules of Aristotelian syllogisms. By the way, Aristotle is also the guy to whom we owe the basis of the scientific method, but that’s a story for another day.

Although words like scientific or science were altogether frequently used with regards of the scholarly endeavors of the ladies and gentlemen of the early 19th Century (yes, there were ladies too that dabbled into the sciences, even if sometimes it was only to write about the spectacular discoveries and controversies of their time), the term scientist has been officially coined in 1834 by William Whewell. A man truly blessed in the art of words, being credited with coining a lot of other famous words like anode and physicist, he proposed the word in a review of a science popularization book written by one Mrs. Somerville. The circumstance of how this came to be is masterly imparted to us by Sydney Ross in a superb historical account of the word scientist, published in 1962.

For the rounded scientist or for the merely curious, I truly recommend the lecture of the referenced papers. They’re delightful!

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Reference 1. [Whewell W] (1834). Art. III. [Review of] On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. By Mrs. Somerville. The Quarterly Review, 51: 58-61. FULLTEXT PDF at GoogleBooks

Reference 2. Ross S (1962). Scientist: The story of a word, Annals of Science, 18:2, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/00033796200202722. FREE FULLTEXT PDF

P.S. I checked and Wikipedia is correct with the following statement:

“To be exact, the person coined the term scientist was referred to in Whewell 1834 only as “some ingenious gentleman.” Ross added a comment that this “some ingenious gentleman” was Whewell himself, without giving the reason for the identification. Ross 1962, p.72.”

Even if, by some very slim chance, the “ingenious gentleman” was not Whewell himself, Whewell did propose the term scientist in a more formal manner six years later in 1840 bringing more than just linguistic justifications, like the diversity of those engaged in scientific endeavors and how they don’t call themselves natural philosophers anymore.

By Neuronicus, 9 August 2016

Pic of the Day: First and Last Man on the Moon

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Today we celebrate the first instance the humankind stepped on the Moon. I thought only fitted to remind you of the last human there, too. As a bitter-sweet reminder that NASA is not something where budgetary concerns should lie.

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In 1987, the Apollo 11 Crew left their signed patch for safekeeping at NASA until is presented to the first manned mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

Links: NASA Apollo 11 Mission | NASA Apollo 17 Mission | Apollo 11 Patch to Mars 1 | Buzz Aldrin punching a conspiracy theorist that doubted the moon landing

The FIRSTS: Betz pyramidal neurons (1874)

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Betz cell in the dog cortex. Copyright: RA Bergman, AK Afifi, PM Heidger, & MP D’Alessandro. Pic taken from here.

Bigger that Purkinje cerebellar neurons, the Betz pyramidal neurons (aka the giant pyramidal neurons) can have up to 100 micrometers in diameter. They are located in the fifth layer of the grey matter in the primary motor cortex. And they were discovered by a Ukrainian who did not receive the just place he deserves in the history of neuroscience, as most books on the subject ignore him. So let’s give him some attention.

Vladimir Alekseyevich Betz (1834–1894) was a professor of anatomy and a histologist at the Kiev University. Just like with Pavlov, sometimes there is nothing spectacular or weird or bizarre in the life of a great thinker. Betz was a child of a relatively wealthy family, went to good schools, then to Medical School, where he showed interest in the anatomy department. He continued his postgraduate studies in the West (that is Germany and Austria) after which he returned home where he got a position as a professor at his Alma Mater where he stayed until he died of heart problems at the age of 60.

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Vladimir Alekseyevich Betz (1834 – 1894), License: PD

During his PhD, which was on the blood flow in the liver, Betz discovered an interest in histology. He was unsatisfied with the quality of the existing staining methods, so he worked for years to improve the fixation and staining methods of the brain tissue. His new methods allowed the cutting and preserving very thin slices and then he described what he saw. But Betz’s genius was in linking his cortical cytoarchitechtonic findings with physiological function, dividing the cortex into the motor and sensory areas. He also made revolutionary observations of the anatomical organization and development and various pathologies.

Original reference (which I did not find): Betz W (1874). Anatomischer Nachweis zweier Gehirncentra. Centralblatt für die medizinischen Wissenschaften. 12:578-580, 595-599.

Reference: Kushchayev SV, Moskalenko VF, Wiener PC, Tsymbaliuk VI, Cherkasov VG, Dzyavulska IV, Kovalchuk OI, Sonntag VK, Spetzler RF, & Preul MC (Jan 2012, Epub 10 Nov 2011). The discovery of the pyramidal neurons: Vladimir Betz and a new era of neuroscience. Brain, 135(Pt 1):285-300. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr276.  ArticleFREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 17 December 2015

The FIRSTS: the pons (1572)

The pons varolii, as described in plate 677 of Henry Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body (1918). License: PD.
The pons varolii, as described in plate 677 of Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1918). License: PD.

The name of the pons, that part of the brainstem that is so important for survival functions (like breathing) and holds the nuclei of several cranial nerves, is actually pons varolii. I was wondering why is that? When I learned neuroanatomy I was extremely lucky, because my knowledge of Latin, such as it is, contributed immensely to the memorization of brain structures; so the name of pons means “bridge” in Latin, which makes sense because it looks like one (see picture). But I was at a loss with varolii. Was it some sort of a joke that I missed? Was it the “rude bridge” or, more colloquially, the “a**hole bridge”?! Varo (or the closest thing) in Latin means rude or uncivilized.

Title page of Varolio's published letter in 1573.
Title page of Varolio’s published letter in 1573.

Well, turns out that the guy who described the pons for the first time is Costanzo Varolio (1543–1575) and the structure is named after him. Duh! As if it’s uncommon to name things after their discoverer… Anyway, I didn’t read the original account, which is free in its digitized-by-Google form of dubious quality (you can see the actual thumb of the dude who scanned it on the last page and many pages are illegible due to poor scanning technique). I got the information about the pons from the Pioneers in Neurology section in the Journal of Neurology. Varolio wrote a huge letter (seventy-some pages worth!) on 1 April 1572 to another physician describing the optical nerves and the pons. The letter has been published a year later in Padua, Italy. The pons may have been described and/or named earlier, but, alas, the works were not published or published much later. Goes to show that publication is more important that discovery…

Original reference: Varolio, C. (1573). De Nervis Opticis nonnullisque aliis praeter communem opinionem in Humano capite observatis (On the optic nerves observed in the human brain and a few other particulars adverse to the common opinion). Padua. Google ebook

Reference: Zago S & Meraviglia MV (July 2009, Epub 6 June 2009). Costanzo Varolio (1543–1575). Journal of Neurology, 256(7):1195-6. doi: 10.1007/s00415-009-5192-5. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 10 November 2015

The FIRSTS: discovery of the polymerase (1956)

Arthur Kornberg. License: PD, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Arthur Kornberg. License: PD, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Polymerases are enzymes that synthesize nucleic acids. The main types of polymerases are DNA polymerases and RNA polymerases. Everything alive has them. Saying that you cannot have cellular life on Earth without them is like saying you cannot have a skeleton without bones.

The first polymerase was discovered by Arthur Kornberg in 1956. Of note, his (and his two postdocs and lab technician) discovery was rejected for publication by The Journal of Biological Chemistry basically on the grounds that they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re not qualified to talk about it. It took a new Editor-in-Chief to push the publication which finally appeared in the July 1958 issue. Talk about politicking in academia…

Diagram of DNA polymerase extending a DNA strand and proof-reading. License: PD. Credit: Madeleine Price Ball
Diagram of DNA polymerase extending a DNA strand and proof-reading. License: PD. Credit: Madeleine Price Ball

Anyway, less than a year since publication, in 1959, Kornberg (but not his co-authors) received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the polymerase. Which he isolated from a bug called E. Coli, the same bacterium that can be found in your intestines and poop or can give you food poisoning (same species, but not necessarily the same strain).

Reference: Lehman IR, Bessman MJ, Simms ES, & Kornberg A (July 1958). Enzymatic Synthesis of Deoxyribonucleic Acid. I. Preparation of Substrates and Partial Purification of an enzyme from Escherichia Coli. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 233:163-170. FREE FULLTEXT PDF | 2005 JBC Centennial Cover

By Neuronicus, 7 November 2015