cover image Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse

Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse

Richard Rapport, Author W. W. Norton & Company $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-06019-5

Like Dava Sobel's Longitude, this slim, engaging volume (part biography, part history) chronicles the discovery of a singular fact that revolutionized a whole field of scientific inquiry. In this case, it was the simple observation that brain cells don't always connect. A space exists between the end of one cell's axon and another's dendrites, and it is across this gap, or synapse, that our nerves communicate. These days the existence of the synaptic gap is taken for granted but, as neurosurgeon Rapport details, at the end of the 19th century, it was the source of great scientific debate-and the cause of a great rivalry between histologists Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who shared a Nobel Prize for their work in 1906. Golgi first discovered the method for staining neurons so they could be observed under a microscope, but Cajal perfected the method and argued for the synaptic gap (against ""reticulists"" who claimed that neurons connected in a seamless web). While detailing a background of science and European history, Rapport focuses on the brilliant and affable Cajal, who labored most of his life in ""isolation from the scientific mainstream with no real teachers of stature and few contemporaries with whom he could debate his ideas."" For fans of science and medical history, the story of how this determined Spaniard conducted his revolutionary investigations and finally brought his findings to the attention of the rest of Europe will make for fascinating, and occasionally moving, reading.