The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute Over How Nerves Communicate
Elliot S. Valenstein
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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.
Pursuit of Nature: Informal Essays on the History of Physiology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 72. 14. J. C. Eccles, “Under the Spell of the Synapse,” in F. G. Worden, J. P. Swazey, and G. Adelman, eds., The Neurosciences: Paths of Discovery I (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1992), p. 161. 15. B. Katz, “Bernard Katz.,” in L. Squires, ed., The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Society for Neuroscience, 1966), p. 373. 16. A.G. Karczmar, “Sir John Eccles,
“out of reach of any immediate hope of explanation.” Langley had observed that at some sites sympathetic nerves cause muscles to contract while at other sites they cause muscles to relax. Even collateral branches of the same sympathetic nerve might produce opposite responses on different visceral organs. Similarly, adrenaline produced different responses on different visceral organs, but generally mimicking the responses evoked by the sympathetic nerve. Langley was also aware that many other
of the cell by using a centrifuge. Through several steps, it was possible to concentrate the synaptosomes based on differences in weight from other parts of the neuron. A chemical analysis then could determine if the candidate substance was concentrated in the region of the neuron containing the synaptic vesicles. 40. J. C. Eccles, The Inhibitory Pathway of the Central Nervous System (Sherrington Lectures 9) (Springfield, Ill.: Charles Thomas, 1969), p. 112. 41. M. H. Aprison and R. Werman,
really wanted a career in research. He wrote to Cornelia James, the woman he would marry a year later, that he had accepted a position as instructor in physiology at Harvard and that this might be the beginning of a new career—“Who can tell?” When Cannon started in the physiology department in July 1900, he was given a small laboratory, which enabled him both to continue work on how emotions affect gastric motility and to explore several new lines of research.21 A number of academics began to
his collaborators concluded: The experimental observations on synaptic excitatory and inhibitory action require for their explanation two specific transmitter substances. The excitatory substance probably acts by stimulating the sodium carrier mechanism, while it is suggested that the inhibitory substance possibly acts by stimulating the sodium pump.29 Eccles sent Dale an advance copy of the manuscript, writing that “I hope that these modest offerings to the theme of chemical transmission will