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Neurobiological revisionism

GREGORY C.O'KELLY gokelly at delphi.com
Sat Mar 26 23:44:35 EST 1994


	It is a given nowadays that biology is compatible with the 'hard 
sciences'.  Mathematics is considered characteristic of these 'hard sci-
ences', and biophysics certainly has its uses for statistics.  But with re-
gard to the nature of what is termed 'bioelectricity', biology is still in the
17th century.  This issue has immediate consequence for understanding not
only the nature of nerve impulse propagation; but also the functional organ-
ization of the nervous system, the nature of the 'systemic' genetic ordering
{that results in changes in phenotype of creatures with nervous systems 
(the 'hopeful monsters' of Goldschmidt, as discussed by Gould) such that
evolutionary change's dependence on genetic gradualism of mutation a la
Ernst Mayr is suspect}, with the weight shifting toward the 'punctuated
equilibria' of Gould; and the understanding of the nature of chronic and
degenerative disorders such that they may be remedied by treatments
involving the simulation of strong CNS functioning.  The history of the
so-called 'neurosciences' is littered with premature theorizations that
have been perpetuated at the clinical level to the extent that in 1983
the Nobel Prize winning Dr. Peter Medawar, in his essay "Osler's Razor", 
states that clinical neurology could do little more today than it could
a century ago.
	Electricity first was a parlor toy in the 17th century with guests
shocking each other playfully.  With the introduction of the Leyden jar
in the 18th century the electrical charge could be stored and added to, to 
result in painful discharges that would make muscles contract.  It was during this century that electricity was associated with the nerves.  Ben
Franklin, who had noted differences in polarity and that the charge created
by rubbing two substances together was the same as that for lightning,
found that claims for the health and medical benefits of such stimulation
were not founded.
	At the end of the 18th century Luigi Galvani was making frog's legs
twitch and speaking of 'animal electricity' and how it may make possible
the restoration of life in the recently dead from drowning or asphyxiation.
But in 1800 Alessandro Volta debunked claims to a special sort of 'animal
electricity' with his announcment of 'voltaic piles' (batteries) which later
became known as 'galvanic current'.  The work of Galvani and his disciples
lead to Mary Shelley's book "Frankenstein" which spoke not of electricity,
but of 'natural philosophy' in the lightning filled skys of the alps.
	Michael Faraday followed in the 1820's and 30's.  He not only formu-
lated the laws for electrolysis  (which was dependent upon the polarity of
the galvanic current), but he discovered the other sort of electricity which
resulted when a magnetic field was changed (say by moving a wire around
a magnet as in an electrical generator).  This kind of current became known
as 'faradic current'.  Galvanic current is direct current; faradic current is
alternating current.
	It wasn't until late in the second decade of the 20th century that
particle physicists understood the difference between the two types of
current in terms of the behavior of electrons.  Only galvanic current carried
electrical charge and demonstrated polarity;  faradic current had to be 
changed first to galvanic before electrical charge could be obtained, and
faradic current had only a 'hot' pole and ground.  This difference was im-
portant for understanding why such things as electroplating and electrol-
ysis are only possible with direct current.  More importantly, this differ-
ence was why the results of Stanley MIller in 1953 were obtained with
static discharges of 'lightning'  in an atmosphere in which the atmospheric
conditions of early earth were simulated.  The result was the creation of
organic molecules and amino acids that rained down - galvanically illus-
trating the connection between direct current and the origins of life.
	But, before the theoreticists understood the galvanic/faradic (g/f)
distinction in terms of electron behavior, the technologists were already
using it to argue for faradic current to light cities (a la Tesla), and to
send out the first radio waves (AM).  For radio, the only current that worked
was galvanic current, but faradic current was easily changed to galvanic
using crystals which had a 'rectifying' property still little understood.
Later, in the 1950's Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgi, using x-ray crystallography
(which was indispensable to the organic chemists like Linus Pauling, James
Watson and Francis Crick) noted that the helical structure of protein was
crystalline enough so that it would support the movement of electrical
charge.  Dr. Gyorgi said that this could be how the nerves conducted elec-
tricity; the rate of the movement of such electrical charge along a crystal-
line structure is similar to that of the speed of nerve impulses.  The medi-
cal community with its clinically impotent neurologists laughed at the 
suggestion and preferred to stick with the view of John Eccles and his
associates presented in a paper in 1953 and awarded with a Nobel Prize in
	In order to understand that view a little more history is in order.  In
the 1830's noted French physiologist Claude Bernard insisted that all living
things followed the laws of nature.  Yet from his own reports on electrical
stimulation of nerve one can see he had no idea of polarity and the laws of
electrolysis, though he appears to have known there was a difference be-
tween AC and DC.  This difference was capitalized on by Guillaume Duchenne
in 1855 almost a quarter century before the electron was even hypothe-
sized.  The 'father of modern electrotherapy' said that AC was preferable
to DC because of blistering of the skin that followed so easily when a 
galvanic current strong enough to make muscles contract was used.  In
addition, because muscle contraction was so important for the electro-
therapist, and muscle contraction occurred with DC only when the current
was first turned on (immediately after which the muscle would relax), Du-
chenne preferred AC because the muscle would contract with each change
of phase without the blistering, and was therefore easier to use by the
therapist who otherwise had to start and stop the current like a tele-
grapher.  These reasons for preferring AC to DC were not based on an under-
standing of the two currents, which was not then possible.
	In 1870 two German physiologists, Hitzig and Fritsch, came up with
the approved way to research with electrical stimulation, and, Professor
Patricia Churchland in her book "Neurophilosophy" states, their techniques
have had enduring importance to this day.  This time was still before the
electron had been hypothesized, so the g/f distinction was still a mystery.
But that did not stop Sir Charles Sherrington and others from drawing a
number of conclusions about the functioning of the nervous system based
on the idea from Hitzig and Fritsch that nerves could be stimulated by 
touching an electrode to them using AC.  Sherrington's consequently mis-
taken ides about the integrative action of the nervous system published
in his 1906 book, and his mistaken ideas about the reflex activity of the
spinal cord were enshrined and saw their fifth publication in 1947. 
	Sherrington's work for this book was done with a string galvanometer invented in 1903, soon after the electron had been discovered, but before 
its place in the atom was understood.  This work involved the detection of
nerve impulses, and their timing.  The nerve impulses were nothing more
than the detection of an electrical charge moving through a magnetic field.
At this time and for almost two decades after, even physicists were dis-
puting the reality of subatomic particles.  In 1922 Wilhelm Roentgen, the
discoverer of x-rays, was telling his students to disregard the upstart
particle.  So for Sherrington electrical charge could only mean an ion, a 
molecule with a charge on it, a particle whose existence was finally 
accepted as something more than a theoretical construct by chemists in
the 1880's and 1890's.
	Sherrington noted that nerve impulses did not travel as fast as
electricity on a wire, so he rejected the metaphor of the nerve as a wire,
a metaphor appealed to by Louis Ranvier in the 1870's in his comparison of
myelinated nerves to undersea telegraph cables.  A new sort of 'animal
electricity' had to be conjured that was unlike anything found in non-
living things.  This is how biology escaped the restriction of compatibility
with the hard sciences, arguing a special case, the uniqueness of the sub-
ject matter.  Louis Pasteur and Justus Liebig, a German chemist , in the
1830's, disputed where chemistry left off and biology began with regard
to fermentation and putrefaction.  The line was drawn at the cell wall.
Now Sherrington and his disciples claimed a new type of 'animal elec-
tricity' which involved the movement of ions by the vital fluids, a sort
of molecular electricity which depended upon fluid dynamics.
	This thinking became part of the ossified corpus of neuroscientific
thinking.  In 1970, in the essay 'Motor Points' in the book "Therapeutic
Electricity and Ultraviolet Radiation", the authors say that AC and DC can
be used interchangably to find what they called 'motorpoints'.  In 1980 in
the Scientific American in an article on myelin the authors claim that 
myelin makes possible a special sort of ionic current that is not like
anything found in electrical circuitry.  In 1983 Peter Medawar wrote that
clinical neurology still could do nothing in the clinic.  Yet clinical neurol-
ogy has worked.  It's kept a whole field of medical specialists and tech-
nicians gainfully employed.
	The work that lead to the closing of the door on the issue of elec-
trical medicine and the understanding of CNS trophism was done by Eccles, 
Hodgkin and Huxley.  The breathtaking charlatanry involved in this Nobel
winning work is a tribute to the strength of the myth that medicine and
biology are scientific, that the specialness of their subject matter removes
them from the rigors of the hard scientists.  Discussing this 'ionic mechan-
ism' in his 1974 book "The Understanding of the Brain", John Eccles, with-
out betraying any recognition of the ridiculousness of his position, tells 
how, in the investigation of nerve impulse propagation on the giant axon
of the squid, it was necessary to extrude the contents of the myelin and
infuse it with the proper salt solution (otherwise lacking).  By altering
from its normal structure the nerve, Eccles claims to have determined
how it functions naturally.  In other words, he supposedly 'proved' that, given certain iatrophysics that hold that bioelectricity is a privileged
instance of electricity involving ion currents, and given a nerve fiber
altered from its natural state, that the resulting observational phenomena
could possibly be accounted for in such a way as to perpetuate these
distortions in  the corpus of medical science.  He was awarded the Nobel
Prize in 1963, and Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgi was laughed at.

	This is an abbreviated version of the story.  It does not include the
story of neurotransmiiters discoveries and the effects of polarity on
neurotransmitter secretion, or the commentary upon the validity of claims
of evolutionists like Ernst Mayr with regard to the nature of genetic change.
It does not touch upon the clinical consequences of this understanding of
biochemistry, nor upon the long held but incorrect notions that:  (1) the
nervous system functions antagonistically; (2) that there are separate
sensory and motor nerves - the Bell Magendie law; and (3) that unmyelin-
ated nerve fiber is legitimate nerve fiber like myelinated nerve fiber, 
even though it is post synaptic.  This abbreviated version of the story also
does not address the issue of the quantification of nervous system com-
plexity in terms of number of emergent axons and synaptic junctions, and
how earlier treatments of the nervous system are inadequate for this task
since they can only address the issue of relative brain weight and size.
	The paper in which all this is more extensively discussed is available by
e-mail.  It is entitled "Biology, Bioelecricity, and the Nervous System" and is
available in an ascii format much like that you are now usin to read this, that is,
one without italics and underlining.  It is hoped that nothing has been lost that
is critical.
	Thank you for reading this far.

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