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The gyri of the brain are thought to have been first named “coils” by Praxagoras of Cos c300 BC and by Erasistratus c260 BC. Vesalius amplified the description.1
Thomas Willis believed that: “movement is initiated in the cerebrum . . ..”2
Vicq d’Azyr described the convolutions in 1786 noting the differences in morphology in different animals. Magendie similarly had noticed that: “The number, the volume, the disposition of the circumconvolutions are variable . . .”3
The attachment of eponyms to cerebral fissures started with the fissure of Sylvius in 1663, though it had been clearly noted by Casper Bartholin (1585–1629), an anatomist in Denmark. The second structure to be so dignified was the fissure of Rolando in 1839.
Rolando observed the precentral and postcentral gyri on either side of the great central fissure. He referred to the convolutions as enteroid processes, a term not very different from that of Erasistratus who compared them to the coils of the intestines. Rolando experimented on pigs, guinea pigs, goats, and sheep. He trepanned the cranium and applied an electric current through a wire placed in different parts of the brain. He observed violent contractions, then stupor; but because of the crude local damage that he knew he had caused, he was reluctant to draw firm conclusions about the relation of function to the anatomical areas examined.
“I rarely obtained a constant effect since it is extremely difficult to recognize what bundles of fibres have been lacerated . . .it is not possible to determine the consequences clearly and distinctly . . .”
Indeed many of his experiments were directed not at the cortex but at the cerebellum, striatum, thalamus, and quadrigeminal bodies. Rolando found the largest motor responses by stimulation of the cerebellum and stressed the importance of this structure in determining movement.
Pierre Flourens (1794–1867) in refuting much of Rolando’s work4 was accused of plagiarism; he therefore gave an annotated French translation to disprove these charges. Flourens experimented mainly on birds. He believed that the cerebrum was not divided functionally, but that intelligence and special senses were diffusely distributed throughout the brain: an early landmark of the holistic hypotheses of brain function.
It fell to Francois Leuret to give credit to Rolando: “Between these two convolutions exists a furrow that separates them . . .; it is as constant as the Sylvian fissure. I have called this furrow the fissure of Rolando, because it was this anatomist who first described it in man, in whom it is still more developed than in the monkey.”5
Vicq d’Azyr had illustrated the central sulcus in 1786, but attached no special importance to it, so Rolando deserves the credit for its demonstration, despite the experimental difficulties he honestly recounted.
Luigi Rolando was born in Turin. After completing his medical studies he soon concentrated on experimental anatomy. He studied in Florence and became physician to the King of Savoy in Turin. The invasion of Italy by Napoleon drove him into exile in Sardinia for 12 years, where he became Professor of “Theoricopractical” Medicine at Sassari. He returned to Turin as Professor of Anatomy.6
Rolando worked extensively on the cerebellum. He observed minor damage to cause staggering, but complete destruction caused total locomotor paralysis in his animals. He therefore regarded the cerebellum as of major importance in determining not only the regulation but also the strength of movement. Although an inaccurate view, this was a great step forwards from the prevailing notions of the cerebellum as controller of intellect, sensation, or vital forces.
He was also responsible for demonstrating in unstained tissue, “a particular grey matter in the posterior third of the posterior horns”, which he noticed was, “more gelatinous . . . of a different colour . . .”
The substantia gelatinosa was subsequently named after this remarkable anatomist. An original engraving of Luigi Rolando is found in the Biblioteque de l’Academie Nationale de Medecine, Paris.