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[Neuroscience] Re: The action potential: Who was its inventor?

r norman NotMyRealEmail at _comcast.net
Mon Aug 1 12:21:36 EST 2005

On 1 Aug 2005 09:23:28 -0700, tehgabriel at web.de wrote:

>Even though this introducing question isn't meant deeply serious, its
>background kept me busy for the last two days. Two questions that may
>sound very simple. But  i have to confess that i have no answer to
>- Who developed the idea that neurons transfer information via spikes
>(spike sequences)? Is there someone who might be refered to as
>"father/mother of the spike theory"?
>And even more basically:
>- Who was the first one to record (or more broadly: measure) a spike?
>And when did this happen?
>As far as i know, it were the old italian scientist (e.g. Volta), who
>already developed a concept of bioelectric (think of the classic frog
>experiment). But does this really include "spikes"?
>Any ideas are appreciated!

Probably the best candidates for "parents of the action potential"
would be Hodgkin and Huxley who worked out the mechanism by which it
occurs, the voltage gated sodium and potassium channels in the early
1950's.  However, the all-or-none nature of the action potential had
been known more than a hundred years before that.  Von Helmholtz
measured the velocity of propagation of the spike in 1849.  DuBois
Reymond is usually considered the "father of electrophysiology" and
was a contemporary of (and fellow student with)) von Helmholtz.
Incidentally, it was Galvani, not Volta, who discovered
"bioelectricity" with the frog legs in 1791.    So sometime between
1791 and the 1830's, the all-or-none nature of the action potential
must have been discovered but I can't find a specific reference to who
or when.  The galvanometer wasn't invented until the 1820's so it must
have been in the period 1820-1840 at the same time as the cell
doctrine (Schwann, 1839) and the discovery of myelinated and
unmyelinated axons (Remack, 1836).  As far as I know, there is no
single name associated with developing the notion of the all-or-none
action potential, at least none that is now recognized and given
credit in modern times.   However it no doubt came from the von
Helmholtz or DuBois Reymond labs.

The place to look would be M.A.B. Brazier,  "A History of
Neurophysiology in the 19th Century", New York: Raven Press, 1988.  No
doubt it would also be in her "A History of the Electrical Activity of
the Brain", London: Pitman, 1961, but I can't locate my copy of that.

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