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Neurosurgery. 2007 Nov;61(5):891-907; discussion 907-8.

The brain on itself: Nobel laureates and the history of fundamental nervous system function.

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Department of Neurosurgery, Ullevål University Hospital, Oslo, Norway.


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been given in recognition of work in the neurosciences a number of times. Laureates have been awarded for work on both fundamental and more complex nervous system functions. This review is restricted to contributions by 20th century laureates to the understanding of fundamental nervous system function on the cellular level. In 1906, Camillo Golgi and Ramón y Cajal were awarded for their work on the microscopic structure of the nervous system. Their achievement and those of others within this field, coupled with technological progress, gradually allowed more complex physiological studies. In 1932, the prize was awarded to Charles Sherrington and Edgar Adrian for their discoveries of how neurons function. They were followed in 1944 by Herbert Gasser and Joseph Erlanger who uncovered the highly differentiated functions of single nerve fibers. Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley were awarded for the detection of the ionic mechanism of the action potential and its mathematical explanation in 1963. In 1991, Erwin Neher and Bernd Sakmann were awarded for their work on single ion channels. Although the scientists who proved the hypothesis (Fridjof Nansen, Wilhelm His, and August Forel) were never awarded by the Nobel Committee, their studies gave rise to one of the most fundamental questions in 20th century neuroscience: How is information carried from one neuron to another or to an effector cell? This was first solved in the vegetative nervous system, and, in 1936, Henry Dale and Otto Loewi received the prize for their discoveries relating to chemical transmission of nerve impulses. In 1963, John Eccles was awarded the prize for his work on the physiology of synapses. In 1970, Bernhard Katz received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quantal release. Katz shared the prize with Julius Axelrod and Ulf von Euler, who were central in finding that transmitters are stored in presynaptic vesicles and that the effect in many synapses is terminated by reuptake. This review does not include 21st century laureates, although the prize has already been given to neuroscientists twice this century; Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel received the award in 2000 for their discoveries related to signal transduction, and Richard Axel and Linda Buck received the award in 2004 for their work in the field of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.

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