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18 October 2015

Cajal, Much More than a Nobel

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More than a century after his great discoveries, the Spanish physician Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) remains a scientific legend around the world. And his ideas, ahead of their time, inspire those who today pursue one of the greatest unresolved challenges to medicine: how to repair the brain and nervous tissue.

He was not looking for miracle treatments. The nervous system simply fascinated him and he devoted much of his life and his research to studying and describing it. He discovered that brain and nervous tissue is composed of individual cells (neurons). His new and revolutionary theory, called the “neuron doctrine”, was the starting point of modern neuroscience, and for this he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906.

Ramon y Cajal self-portrait (ca. 1876) made when he was preparing for his PhD in Medicine

After this achievement, Ramon y Cajal continued faithfully describing the neural landscape, delving into it with his microscope. For those neurological portraits, such as those of dendritic spines, he would deserve a second posthumous Nobel —if that were possible. However, until the 1970s (when the electron microscope had become sufficiently advanced) the importance of dendritic spines was not appreciated: Ramon y Cajal was right when he intuitively knew their role in the communication between neurons, acting as the receptors of nerve impulses.

Thanks to his incomparable intuition he could see what no one else saw where others also looked, despite the limited means he had at his disposal in Spain for his research. Using some rudimentary tools —brain tissue preparations, some chemicals, a microscope, cameras and drawing tools— he observed and sketched structures that were initially scorned, but over time his illustrations became icons of science and are still used today in medical schools.

But the legacy of Cajal is much more than his individual findings. Humanist as well as scientist, he is considered the head of the “Generation of Sages,” and it’s no wonder. After him came a flock of students who followed him with great enthusiasm and dedication throughout his career. Rafael Lorente de No (1902-1990), one of the last students of Ramon y Cajal, became one of the most important figures in the field of neurophysiology. Fernando de Castro (1896-1967) carried out various research that, despite having been recognized late, formed the basis of numerous studies on the mechanisms of the chemoreceptors that he himself had discovered. Pío del Río Hortega (1882-1945) discovered the microglia, the cells of nervous tissue that make up the immune system of the central nervous system.

Ramon y Cajal was more than a Nobel Prize, more than a series of legendary illustrations, more than the father of a generation of brilliant scientists. Although he died on October 18, 1934, more than eighty years ago, the ideas of Santiago Ramon y Cajal are still very much alive in current research. And that is perhaps the greatest value of his legacy.

More information in “The Nobel Prize that Ramón y Cajal Never Received”

Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledwe Window)

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