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Neuromuscul Disord. 2002 Aug;12(6):600-7.

A curious experiment: the paradigm switch from observation and speculation to experimentation, in the understanding of neuromuscular function and disease.

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  • 1Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Australia.


The four-link chain of the motor unit represents the contemporary end-point of some two millennia of evolving knowledge in neuroscience. The paradigm shift in neuromuscular epistemology occurred in the mid-17th century. In 1666, the newly graduated Dutch doctor, Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) published his former investigations of dissected nerve-muscle preparations. These experiments comprised the quantum leap from observation and speculation, to that of experimentation in the field of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. In what he termed 'A Curious Experiment' he also described the phenomenon of intrinsic muscle excitability - "I cannot observe that the muscle in the living animal ever absolutely ceases from all motion". Eighty years later (1752), von Haller demonstrated experimentally that irritability (contractility) was an intrinsic property of all muscular tissue; and distinguished between the sensibility of nerve impulses and the irritability of muscular contraction. This experimental progression from Swammerdam to von Haller culminated in 1850, when Claude Bernard's studies in experimental pharmacology confirmed that muscle was a functional unit, independent of any electrical innervation via its supplying nerve. This account comprises an audit of Swammerdam's work in the perspective of neuromuscular knowledge.

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