Galvani's Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse

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9780199751754: Galvani's Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse

Galvani's Spark chronicles the gradual understanding of the nerve impulse which is the basis of all thoughts, sensations and actions. The story begins with Luigi Galvani's chance observation of a spark from a friction machine causing a frog's leg to twitch from across the room. The accurate recording and the understanding of the properties of the nerve fiber membrane that makes the impulse possible became the objectives of neuroscientists for over 200 years.

The author, Alan J. McComas finely interweaves the stories, the challenges, and the controversies of the most prominent figures in neuroscience, from the histological descriptions of nerve cells by Cajal to the discovery of a three-dimensional structure of ion channels in cell membranes by MacKinnon. Along the way he details the first recordings of the impulse with a cathode ray oscilloscope by Gasser and Erlanger, Adrian's discovery that stimulus intensity is coded by the frequency of nerve impulses, and Hodgkin and Huxley's brilliant voltage clamp experiments, amongst many others.

The recognition by Galvani that muscles and nerves have an electrical component triggered the field of neurophysiology and in turn has produced some of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience. 16 investigators of the nerve impulse went on to win or share Nobel prizes and this book not only emphasizes their work but also traces their brilliant careers. For anyone interested in the nervous system and the history of neuroscience, Galvani's Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse is essential reading.

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About the Author:


Dr. Alan J. McComas was born in Bruce Rock in Western Australia and immigrated to the United Kingdom where he attended Great Yarmouth Grammar School. He received both his BSc in physiology and MBBS from Durham University in the UK and was trained at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, and the Department of Physiology at the University College London. After successive positions at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1971 he became Professor of Medicine (Neurology) at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In 1988, he also became the Founding Chair in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University. Since 1996 he has held the position of Emeritus Professor of Medicine.

Dr. McComas has pursued a successful career in medicine and physiology. His research accomplishments include some of the earliest microelectrode studies of muscle diseases, the electrophysiological estimation of numbers of human motor nerve fibers, and, more recently, the demonstration that magnetic stimulation of the brain may abort migraine attacks. In 2001, he achieved the Distinguished Researcher Award of the American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine. He was also awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 2005. On two occasions, he has been peer-ranked in the top 2% of doctors in North America. He has authored or coauthored seven books.

Review:


Recipient of the 2014 International Society for the History of the Neurosciences Award for Outstanding Book in the History of the Neurosciences!


"Galvani's Spark is an outstanding work of scholarship which will unquestionably prove to be a treasure house, as it is bursting with information, with scientific detail and with innumerable fascinating illustrations and references to the relevant literature. To do it full justice would almost require me to write another comprehensive volume, as this work embraces not only a vast amount of detailed scientific information, but also includes a number of delicious personal vignettes relating to the work, activities and views of many of the glitterati of neuroscience. In my opinion this book is a colossal achievement which will be widely read and enjoyed, not only by physiologists, but also by people like myself who have spent a lifetime in neurological practice." -- John Walton (Lord Walton of Detchant) Kt TD, MA, MD, DSc, FRCP, FMedSci, Former Professor of Neurology and Dean of Medicine, University of Newcastle upon Tyne , Belford, Northumberland, UK


"This excellent historical survey covers a fundamental area of modern neuroscience and neurobiology, namely the generation of the nerve impulse. McComas writes in a popular style with amusing anecdotes and his own commentaries and opinions, but there is no sacrifice of accuracy or erudition. It is all very easy to read. It should be widely enjoyed by neuroscientists, including those, now in the majority, who have grown up with little or no acquaintance with electrophysiology; indeed, it is entirely suitable for anybody interested in the way nerves work. McComas incidentally provides a serious teaching text by explaining and putting into context the major experiments underlying current understanding of the nerve impulse and synaptic transmission; thus he provides a stimulating introduction for both honours and doctoral students. Galvani's Spark can be warmly recommended." -- Peter Matthews MD, DSc, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Sensorimotor Physiology, Oxford University, UK


"Alan McComas has made very significant scientific contributions in neurophysiology and in the estimation of motor units in particular. Remarkably he has been able to explain the story of the nerve impulse in a clear and engaging narrative which has some similarities to a detective story. This approach brings to life the triumphs, sacrifices and disappointments in the progress of knowledge and discovery. Imperfect scientists have contributed to our understanding of this story which relates to every one of us. I believe this book will become a classic and it is a remarkable achievement." -- Dr. Adrian R.M. Upton M.B., B.Chir., FRCP(C), FRCP(E), FRCP(G), Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Neurology, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada


"Physiologists, regardless of specialization, will find Alan McComas' scholarly presentation of 'the wonders of the nerve impulse' to be a captivating example of making history interesting, alive, and at times, exciting." -- Charles M. Tipton, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Physiology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ


"The year 1953 is renowned in Science for the discovery of the molecular basis of inheritance by Crick and Watson at Cambridge University. Alan McComas proposes and ably supports the thesis in Galvani's Spark, that in the preceding year at the same university, Hodgkin and Huxley made a comparable leap in the understanding of the membrane basis of the initiation and conduction of the nerve impulse." -- Professor Vahe E. Amassian, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, State University of New York-Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY


"A detailed and thoughtful account of research into the nature of the nerve impulse, the electrochemical signal that enables the various parts of the nervous system to communicate with each other. Along the way, the book embraces the work of many physiologists, biologists, physicians, biochemists and physicists, with special attention being given to the voltage-clamp experiments of Hodgkin and Huxley in the early 1950s. McComas, currently Emeritus Professor at McMaster University, is well equipped to write the story; a neurophysiologist himself, he is best known for estimating numbers of spinal motor neurons in human subjects, including those with neuromuscular disorders. It is likely that Galvani's Spark will become a classic and will be read with interest by many established researchers and physicians involved with the nervous system. For those entering the field it provides a valuable and unique introduction to the subject." -- Roberto E. Sica, Arquivos de Neuro-psiquiatria


"McComas not only tells the story of how nerve function was elucidated but equally importantly of the courage it took for the scientists who performed this research to question persistent dogmas, face outspoken critics, publicly recant untenable theories, invent novel procedures, and carry out nearly impossible experiments... McComas's book exhibits the panorama of neurophysiology in a manner that reveals its integration, integrity, and living intensity. I highly recommend Galvani's Spark to any reader who wants to learn how current knowledge of nerve function came to be." - Robert Root-Bernstein, PhD, JAMA


"This is an excellent book which should be a mandatory purchase for all electrophysiologists and an accessible introduction to the subject for inquisitive students." -- Physiology News, Angus Brown, Associate Professor of Neuroscience, University of Nottingham


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