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The War of the Soups and the Sparks

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

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The War of the Soups and the Sparks
    Book Description:

    Like the cracking of the genetic code and the creation of the atomic bomb, the discovery of how the brain's neurons work is one of the fundamental scientific developments of the twentieth century. The discovery of neurotransmitters revolutionized the way we think about the brain and what it means to be human yet few people know how they were discovered, the scientists involved, or the fierce controversy about whether they even existed. The War of the Soups and the Sparks tells the saga of the dispute between the pharmacologists, who had uncovered the first evidence that nerves communicate by releasing chemicals, and the neurophysiologists, experts on the nervous system, who dismissed the evidence and remained committed to electrical explanations.

    The protagonists of this story are Otto Loewi and Henry Dale, who received Nobel Prizes for their work, and Walter Cannon, who would have shared the prize with them if he had not been persuaded to adopt a controversial theory (how that happened is an important part of this history). Valenstein sets his story of scientific discovery against the backdrop of two world wars and examines the fascinating lives of several scientists whose work was affected by the social and political events of their time. He recounts such stories as Loewi's arrest by Nazi storm troopers and Dale's efforts at helping key scientists escape Germany.

    The War of the Soups and the Sparks reveals how science and scientists work. Valenstein describes the observations and experiments that led to the discovery of neurotransmitters and sheds light on what determines whether a novel concept will gain acceptance among the scientific community. His work also explains the immense importance of Loewi, Dale, and Cannon's achievements in our understanding of the human brain and the way mental illnesses are conceptualized and treated.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50973-2
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    Elliot S. Valenstein
  6. CHAPTER 1 Setting the Stage: The Neuron Doctrine and the Synapse
    (pp. 1-6)

    It is now recognized that, with only a few exceptions, there is a physical gap between nerve cells and between them and the muscles and glands they innervate. Over much of the last half of the nineteenth century, however, eminent anatomists argued over whether a gap existed between nerve cells or whether instead nerve fibers formed a continuous network with no separation between them. The controversy over the existence and the nature of the gap had to be resolved before the question of whether nerves communicated chemically or electrically could come to the fore. By 1906, as the above quote...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Autonomic Nervous System: Testing Drugs on Visceral Organs and Skeletal Muscles
    (pp. 7-17)

    During much of the nineteenth century, pharmacology primarily involved cataloging information about the use of drugs to treat illness. Much of this information was passed down without any valid testing of the effectiveness of the drugs or much understanding of how they exerted the effects claimed for them. The drugs, which were mostly crude extracts from plants, were known collectively as materia medica, and those who conveyed this field’s knowledge to medical students often had the title of professor of materia medica, not pharmacology. Around the turn of the century, however, pharmacology began to evolve into an experimental science investigating...

  8. CHAPTER 3 An Idea Ahead of Its Time: The First Hint at the Existence of Chemical Neurotransmitters
    (pp. 18-28)

    Thomas Renton Elliott (1877–1961) is commonly given credit for being the first to suggest the existence of chemical neurotransmitters.¹ That Elliott was a remarkably astute scientist and scholar there can be no doubt, but the question of whether Elliott actually concluded that nerves secrete chemical substances is more ambiguous than usually reported.

    After completing the academic requirements for the medical degree in 1900 at the age of twenty-three, he decided to get involved in research before starting the clinical training. He soon demonstrated his potential for research and was awarded the prestigious Coutts-Trotter fellowship, which enabled to work with...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Henry Dale: Laying the Foundation
    (pp. 29-50)

    More than anyone else, Henry Hallett Dale (1875–1968) is responsible for the discoveries that provided the foundation necessary for proving that nerves secrete humoral substances. However, this was not his intention at the time he was working, and it took the speculation of others to provoke him to look at the problem.

    Dale was born in London in 1875, the third child of seven. He later said that despite a concerted effort by a relative to prove otherwise, no family members engaged in any kind of scientific work. His father managed the pottery branch of a large firm, as...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Otto Loewi: An Inspired Dream and a Speculative Leap
    (pp. 51-67)

    By 1914 Henry Dale had established that acetylcholine was the most potent substance known capable of mimicking parasympathetic effects. Moreover, he had also shown that noradrenaline (norepinephrine) was much more potent than adrenaline (epinephrine) in reproducing sympathetic effects. He had the two most important pieces of the puzzle in hand, but he did not risk speculating about what the whole picture might look like and he never hypothesized that these two substances might be secreted by nerves. It is true that it was not known that acetylcholine and norepinephrine were natural substances, but it is also true that Dale, by...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Road to the Nobel Prize
    (pp. 68-88)

    World War I began only a few months after Henry Dale had left the Wellcome Laboratories to start working at the Institute for Medical Research. As did most of the leading British scientists, he spent much of the next four years working on war-related problems. When the war ended, Dale was increasingly burdened with administrative responsibilities and committees like the one he headed for the League of Nations on drug standardization. He was, however, able to continue his research on histamine and to make important contributions to our knowledge of this substance.

    As noted in chapter 4, Dale and his...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Walter Cannon: A Near Miss by America’s Most Renowned Physiologist
    (pp. 89-120)

    Although the American pharmacologist Reid Hunt first reported that acetylcholine was the most potent drug known for lowering blood pressure, the possibility that it was secreted by parasympathetic nerves was not pursued until fifteen years later, when Otto Loewi began to work on the problem. And even afterward it was primarily European pharmacologists who extended Loewi’s research. A search through the American Journal of Physiology from 1926 through 1929, for example, reveals only one publication on acetylcholine (and it was judged to be “insignificant”).²

    There was one American, however, who came close to being the first to prove that a...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The War of the Soups and the Sparks
    (pp. 121-134)

    Even after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Loewi and Henry Dale in 1936, most neurophysiologists did not accept neurohumoral transmission of the nerve impulse as a general principle, although many were willing to concede that chemical transmission might be adequate for the sluggish response of visceral organs. Neurophysiologists in general were convinced that only electrical transmission is fast enough to activate skeletal muscles, and for them the possibility that nerve impulses at brain synapses might be transmitted chemically was not worth thinking about. The neurophysiologist John Eccles wrote in 1936 that the “presumed chemical nature of the synaptic...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Loewi, Dale, and Cannon: The Later Years
    (pp. 135-156)

    Otto Loewi was sixty-three in 1936. He had remained active in research at the University of Graz, but in less than two years his life was completely disrupted by political events. The Austrian Nazi party had grown in strength after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and was particularly active in the city of Graz. Nazi demonstrations were increasingly frequent, and anti-Semitism was becoming more virulent. Although most Austrian newspapers had expressed pride in November 1936 that an Austrian professor had been awarded the Nobel Prize, some newspapers, particularly the clerical press, according to the New York Timers,...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Brain Neurotransmitters: A New Continent to Explore
    (pp. 157-180)

    It would be difficult to discuss anything about the brain today without referring to chemical neurotransmitters. According to some estimates there may be as many as one hundred different chemical substances secreted by brain neurons, yet in 1950 even the possibility that neurons in the brain communicated chemically was rarely mentioned. Acetylcholine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) had finally been accepted as neurotransmitters, but they were thought to act only at the autonomic nervous system synapses controlling the slow-responding visceral organs. How all of this changed is the subject of this chapter.

    Henry Dale had briefly raised the possibility of the existence...

  16. CHAPTER 11 Epilogue: Some Final Reflections
    (pp. 181-190)

    It is obvious that there are differences of opinion about what can be learned from history. While I personally believe there is much that can be gained from a study of history, I doubt that it can provide all the answers to present problems or is even much help in avoiding past mistakes. I know that it is often said that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, but it has been my observation that those who know history are just as likely to repeat its mistakes. It is just too easy to focus on the similarities of...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 191-228)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 229-238)