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Sci­en­tist: San­ti­ago Ramón y Ca­jal Date: 1889

Dis­cov­ery: The pre­cise phys­i­cal struc­ture of a brain cell – the anatom­i­cal ba­sis for mem­ory

The jelly-like mat­ter of the brain fas­ci­nated Span­ish pathol­o­gist San­ti­ago Ramón y Ca­jal. In 1877, he saved up all the money he had earned as a med­i­cal of­fi­cer in the Span­ish army to buy an old mi­cro­scope.

For sev­eral years he at­tempted to use the mi­cro­scope to study and cat­a­logue the tiny struc­tures within the brain, but they were im­pos­si­ble to see clearly. He wanted to solve the fierce, on­go­ing de­bate as to whether the brain was made up of in­di­vid­ual cells, or whether these cells were all con­tin­u­ously in­ter­con­nected.

In 1873, the Ital­ian physi­cian, Camillo Golgi, de­vel­oped a stain­ing tech­nique us­ing sil­ver ni­trate that al­lowed a much clearer view of brain tis­sue. For years, Ca­jal worked on refin­ing this tech­nique. As a pas­sion­ate artist, he drew ev­ery­thing he saw, and in 1889, he pre­sented his find­ings to the Congress of the Ger­man Anatom­i­cal So­ci­ety at the Uni­ver­sity of Berlin.

Each stained brain cell stood out per­fectly. Its com­plex­ity could be seen in de­tail, show­ing there was no di­rect phys­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween each cell, and set­tling the long-run­ning de­bate. Ca­jal’s pic­tures are still used in neu­ro­science to­day to demon­strate the pre­cise ar­chi­tec­ture of the brain that un­der­lies mem­ory, and all other as­pects of hu­man thought.

Draw­ing by San­ti­ago Ramón y Ca­jal show­ing con­nec­tions in the brain’s cere­bel­lum

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