The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate

The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate

The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate

The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate

Excerpt

During the past fifty years I have seen many advances in our understanding of how the brain works. None of these advances, however, has had a more revolutionary impact on our ideas about the brain than the discovery that nerves secrete chemical neurotransmitters when communicating with other nerves and the muscles they innervate. Yet few people, including most neuroscientists, know much about how neurotransmitters were discovered, the fierce and lengthy dispute about their very existence, or the scientists involved and the social and political events that affected their lives and work.

I first became interested in how neurotransmitters were discovered when I was writing the book Blaming the Brain. After I became aware that all the early drugs used to treat mental illness had been discovered accidentally, it occurred to me that such discoveries could not have happened any other way. So little was known about brain chemistry in the 1950s that it would not have been possible to predict the physiological or psychological effects of any of these drugs. Moreover, because neurotransmitters were not thought to exist in the brain, for a number of years it was not even possible to offer a reasonable explanation of what the drugs might be doing there even after their effects were discovered.

When I finished Blaming the Brain, I started to look into the history of the discovery of neurotransmitters, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was soon captivated by what I found to be a fascinating story. When I talked to my friends about what I was uncovering, it became clear that very few knew much, if anything, about this history. Here was a little-known and fascinating account of an important subject. I decided to make this history the focus of my next book.

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