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Santiago Ramón y Cajal: biography of this pioneer of neuroscience

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: biography of this pioneer of neuroscience

September 13, 2022

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is recognized as one of the founders of contemporary neuroscience. This is because the work he has done in histology and anatomy has been fundamental to describe the functioning of our neural networks. In addition, his biography is full of stories related not only to science, but to art and even military activity.

In this article we will do a review of the biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal , going through some of the most representative elements of the life and work of one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.

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Brief biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal: who was it?

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on May 1, 1852 in Petilla de Aragón, in northern Spain. He was the son of a surgeon who later trained as a physicist.

Although he would become one of the most important scientists in history, Ramón y Cajal's anxieties during his adolescence and youth were very focused on art and physical activity, and not so much on school work. However, despite the fact that there did not seem to be a relationship, these artistic concerns were fundamental skills for the formation and scientific development of Ramón y Cajal afterwards.

At the young age of 16, together with his father, he made different studies in anatomy based on drawings that Ramón y Cajal himself made. This was one of his first approaches to anatomy and art , besides that it was one of the antecedents of his interest in the practice of dissecting.

In the year of 1873, Ramón y Cajal He graduated from the Zaragoza School of Medicine . There he had followed the teachings of the German Theodor Schwann, a researcher specializing in the studies of the cell as the basic structural unit of every living organism.

Later and in the political context of conflict that was lived in Spain, Ramón y Cajal occupies the position of military doctor within the services of the Spanish army . As part of this he spent some months in Cuba, and it was until his return to Zaragoza that he continued his studies in histology and anatomy.

In the year of 1879 when he became associate professor at the University of Zaragoza, where there was also a physiology laboratory that allowed him to approach the studies done through the microscope . In the same year, he formed a family with Silveria Frañañás, with whom he had seven children.

In 1881 he became a professor at the University of Valencia, and later at the universities of Barcelona and Madrid. In this last city he founded the biological research laboratory, in 1922, now known as Cajal Institute , one of the most important neurobiology research centers in the world.

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The foundations of contemporary neuroscience

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, together with the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi, was the first histologist to suggest that the neurons are the primary structures and the functional units of the nervous system , and that are, in addition, structures that are directly connected to each other, but that are relatively autonomous.

In other words, thanks to his research it was possible to know that neurons are cells that communicate with each other through different elements that are distributed in cellular spaces (such as axons). This laid the foundation for the development of neurosciences as we know them today.

To be able to analyze the individual structure of the neurons, Ramón y Cajal He used a test called "silver staining method", which Camillo Golgi had developed . Through this test, both researchers found that the nervous system functions as a kind of mesh or network.

This meant an important contribution, since previously it was thought that the nervous system was composed of separate cells, which communicated by continuity (Golgi himself thought the latter).

The development of their research and the perseverance of Ramón y Cajal in perfecting the staining method allowed them to obtain sharp images of nerve endings and suggest that neurons communicate by contiguity, through the ramifications of dendrites and axons that connect neuronal bodies.

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The legacy of this Spanish researcher

The use of the silver chromate staining method began with the study of the brains of embryos of birds and small mammals. Especially with the brain of the embryos it allowed them to obtain clear colorations of the gray matter of the brain, which later was transferred to the study of the human neuronal activity.

For all the above, in the year 1906 both researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physiology. Likewise all his work was compiled in a book that has become one of the classics of neuroscience: The nervous system of man and vertebrates.

Finally, although Ramón y Cajal did not directly study neuropathology, many of the knowledge and research he developed have been used to understand the functions and alterations of neuronal systems.

Bibliographic references:

  • González, M. (2006). Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a hundred years of the Nobel Prize. Science, 84: 68-75.
  • New World Encyclopedia. (2015). Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Retrieved June 13, 2018. Available at //ón_y_Cajal.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Biography of a Great Thinker | History of Science (September 2022).

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