Golgi, Cajal and Neurophysiology


  • Giovanni Berlucchi Department of Neurological Sciences and Vision, Section of Physiology, University of Verona, I.


Cajal and Sherrington, Neurohistology and neurophysiology, Synaptic and extrasynaptic interneuronal communications, Gogi’s greatness


 In developing neurohistology, neither Golgi nor Cajal paid much attention to the findings of the physiologists who at that time worked on the nervous system, possibly because they felt that the microscope alone could answer functional as well as structural questions. Cajal was personally acquainted with Sherrington but surprisingly did not use his findings on the role of synapses in reflex mechanisms to support the neuron theory. Golgi did not trust the physiologists’ concepts in general and therefore did not pay attention to the physiological literature, an attitude rightly criticized by Luciani, a prominent neurophysiologist of those times. In recent years, attempts to resurrect Golgi’s theory of the diffuse nerve net have been based on the evidence of extrasynaptic communications between neurons through tight junctions or the so-called volume transmission. Here are mentioned earlier efforts to reconcile the neuron theory with Golgi’s theory by Antonio Pensa, a pupil of Golgi who influenced the scientific development of the great neurophysiologist Giuseppe Moruzzi. The article also argues that the known mechanisms of extrasynaptic communication by no means prove the existence of a neural net à la Golgi, that is of a net predicated on a fusion of neurites. The greatness of Golgi must be sought in his immortal contributions to various fields of biology and medicine, rather than in his only major scientific mistake: a stubborn defense of an indefensible theory.