A Short History of Neuroscience at Cambridge
Cambridge is uniquely placed to meet the challenges of neuroscience
It has been 115 years since the nerve cell was clearly recognized as the structural and functional unit of the nervous system; only 115 years of the modern era, yet the achievements over that time have been staggering. During those years anatomists, physiologists, zoologists and many others, all of whom now go by the name of ‘neuroscientists’, sought to understand some of the most fundamental properties of the nervous system. Until the latter part of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries these properties were considered to be ‘mysteries’: the structure of neurons, the ways in which they are interconnected, the architecture of the brain, the physiological bases of reflexes, the mechanisms by which messages from the sense organs are signalled to the brain, and the nature of the nerve impulse.
Many of these mysteries were dispelled by work done in Cambridge
Many of these mysteries were dispelled by work done in Cambridge, such as that of Adrian, Langley, Matthews Hodgkin and Huxley, and through work done by people who had been trained in Cambridge, one of whom was Sherrington who held the George Henry Lewes Studentship in the Department of Physiology.
WJR Rivers and Henry Head in St John's College, performing one of their most famous experiments on the regeneration of nerve tissue
During the years in which this work was being conducted there was, understandably, little need for scientific interactions between members of different University departments. However, by the 1950s, with this basic information about the organisation of the nervous system available, the intellectual climate was to change. Many neuroscientists sought to understand the role of the brain in controlling behaviour, perception, attention, learning and memory. But other factors also played a part in the change. New techniques were appearing that made it possible to address these questions experimentally: the microelectrode allowed the activity of individual nerve cells to be studied in behaving animals and in humans; oscilloscopes could be bought off the shelf instead of having to be made in the laboratory; and computers began to arrive on the scene. Furthermore, new ideas were emerging, such as those of information technology and cybernetics, ideas that Kenneth Craik correctly predicted would influence future developments in neuroscience.
Cambridge was quick to appreciate the need for cross- departmental, interdisciplinary interactions
Cambridge was quick to appreciate the need for cross-departmental, interdisciplinary interactions, and in 1952 appointed Oliver Zangwill as Professor of Experimental Psychology. Zangwill had wide experience of clinical neuropsychology, and had a special interest in the effects of brain lesions on memory and perception. He gathered together a group of people whose interest in the brain extended to encompass behaviour – then almost a unique combination of interests.
Zhangwill teamed up with WH Thorpe in the Department of Zoology. Thorpe was a major figure in the relatively new discipline of ethology that sought to study the behaviour of animals in nature, rather than in the training boxes. This approach initially brought ethologists and psychologists into conflict, and the two men sought to resolve the conflict. To do so, they formed a small discussion group, which came to be known as the Thorpe-Zangwill club, and they brought in people from several disciplines. Thorpe and Zangwill were crucially important in creating an interdisciplinary approach to behaviour and also to neuroscience in Cambridge. Members of the club met over the period 1953 – early 1960s in Thorpe’s room in Jesus College. Later, the Neurobiology club was formed and weekly meetings were held ion Saturday mornings in the attic of the Department of Zoology. The meetings were attended by neuroscientists from different Departments, and the discussions were vigorous and intense. The club was active over several years.
During this time, the Science Research Council expressed an informal interest in, but not a commitment, to establishing a neurobiology centre in the UK. The interested departments in the School of Biology and in the Clinical School joined forces – until then an almost unheard of alliance – and submitted a detailed programme of research. But the SRC got cold feet and did not proceed with the scheme. Twenty years later, the MRC made a firm request for bids for a neurobiology centre. The departments joined forces again and submitted an application. This one was successful and the funds awarded made possible the foundation of Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Brain Repair.
Cohorts of students who no longer recognise subject boundaries are being trained in neuroscience
By 1992 the Cambridge Neuroscience Seminars began. These seminars are held annually. Each seminar consists of a number of lectures and poster sessions followed by a dinner for participants. Members of all University departments, research institutions and industrial organisations in the region that have interests in the field of neuroscience are welcome to attend. The seminars continue to flourish. Around the same time the Clinical School strengthened its interests in the clinical neurosciences, culminating, in 2004, with the establishment of a University Department of Clinical Neurosciences. All these ventures had consequences. Not only had neuroscientists joined forces at the level of research, but a new third year course – a Part II in Neuroscience established in 1988 – is still going strong and is highly successful. Cohorts of students who no longer recognise subject boundaries are being trained in neuroscience; and they can talk and understand the language of molecular neurobiology, psychology, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, and much else of what it takes to comprehend modern neuroscience.
Because of all of these developments Cambridge has, over the past 50 or so years, gained wide experience of studying the nervous system across all disciplines and across all levels of analysis: from molecules to mental processes; from the giant axon of the squid to synapses in the locust brain; from neural development in the nematode worm and the fruit fly to the functioning of the avian and mammalian brains; from modelling of neuronal networks to – dramatically – human brain imaging. This latter technique provides a powerful tool for investigating brain function in health and disease, and raises issues that have led to the creation of new fields of enquiry, such as neuroethics and neuroeconomics. Human brain imaging studies also impinge on the law and are likely to generate a new area of enquiry that might, perhaps, be called “neuroprudence”.
There has never been a greater need for interdisciplinary interactions
With all the techniques available, there has never been a greater need, now and in the future, for interdisciplinary interactions, not only within the biomedical and clinical sciences, but also between them and the physical sciences and technology; there has never been greater promise for the clinical application of basic neuroscientific knowledge; and there has never been greater promise than there is now for the transfer of knowledge gained from the field of neuroscience to the pharmaceutical industry, to the health sciences, computer sciences, engineering – and to yet other, unforeseen fields.
Cambridge is uniquely placed to meet the challenges of neuroscience in the future and there is no doubt that the Cambridge Neuroscience initiative will meet these needs and fulfil its expectations.
Professor Sir Gabriel Horn
Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge