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Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857–1952) and the synapse
  1. J M S Pearce
  1. J M S Pearce, 304 Beverley Road Anlaby, East Yorks HU10 7BG, UK;

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    Fulton compared Sherrington’s The integrative action of the nervous system to Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, while Walshe compared it to Newton’s Principia. It is rare for great scholars to proffer such encomiums.

    In 1893 Sherrington had coined the term “proprioceptive”. By 1900, his research permitted him to conclude that the cerebellum is the head ganglion of the proprioceptive system. In 1898 he described and elucidated decerebrate rigidity in the cat. Years later he discovered and analysed the stretch reflex. Each of these major contributions was a fundamental, original advance.

    In The integrative action of the nervous system,1 Sherrington introduced a further new concept.2 He elucidated the synapse, a nexus for reflex–arc function, the neurone theory, and synaptic transmission. However, Hans Held, in 1897, the year Sherrington introduced the term synapse, had described:

    “For the time being the nerve cells zones of transfer appear histological as mainly variable and variously constituted pathways between concrescing surfaces that I shall designate physiologically simply as zones for the transmission of stimuli.”3

    In his text Sherrington wrote:

    “...At the nexus between cells if there be not actual confluence, there must be a surface of separation. At the nexus between efferent neurone and the muscle cell, electrical organ, etc., which it innervates, it is generally admitted that there is not actual confluence of the two cells together, but that a surface separates them; and a surface of separation is physically a membrane. As regards a number of the features enumerated above as distinguishing reflex–arc conduction from nerve–trunk conduction, there is evidence that similar features, though not usually in such marked extent, characterize conduction from efferent nerve fibre to efferent rent organ, e.g., in nerve-muscle preparation, in nerve–electric–organ preparation, etc. Here change in character of conduction is not due to perikarya (nerve–cell bodies), for such are not present. The change may well be referable to the surface of separation admittedly existent between efferent neurone and effector cell. If the conductive element of the neurone be fluid, and if at the nexus between neurone and neurone there does not exist actual confluence of the conductive part of one cell with the conductive part of the other, ... there must be a surface of separation. Even should a membrane visible to the microscope not appear, the mere fact of non–confluence of the one with the other implies the existence of a surface of separation. Such a surface might restrain diffusion, bank up osmotic pressure, restrict the movement of ions, accumulate electric charges, support a double electric layer, alter in shape and surface–tension with changes in difference of ... it would be a mechanism where nervous conduction, especially if predominantly physical in nature, might have grafted upon it characters just such as those differentiating reflex–arc conduction from nerve–trunk conduction Against the likelihood of nervous conduction being preeminently a chemical rather than a physical l process must be reckoned, as Macdonald well urges, its speed of propagation, its brevity of time–relations, its freedom from perceptible temperature change, its facile excitation by mechanical means, its facilitation by cold, etc. If it is a physical processes the intercalation of a transverse surface of separation or membrane into the conductor must modify the conduction and it would do so with results just such as we find differentiating reflex–arc conduction from nerve–trunk conduction. “... vertebrate histology on the whole furnishes evidence that a surface of separation does exist between neurone and neurone. ... It seems therefore likely that the nexus between neurone and neurone in the reflex arc, at least in the spinal arc of the vertebrate, involves a surface of separation between neurone and neurone; and this as a transverse membrane across the conductor must be an important element in intercellular conduction. The characters distinguishing reflex–arc conduction from nerve-trunk conduction may therefore be largely due to intercellular barriers, delicate transverse membranes, in the former. In view, therefore, of the probable importance physiologically of this mode of nexus between neurone and neurone it is convenient to have a term for it. The term introduced has been synapse.”4

    Charles Scott Sherrington5 was born in London in November 1857. He read medicine at Cambridge where Michael Forster, Langley, and Gaskell stimulated his interest in physiology. He graduated from St Thomas’ in 1885 and began a series of superbly, original experiments in physiology, which led to the Chair at Liverpool in 1895, succeeded by the Waynflete Chair of Physiology at Oxford in 1913. His extensive studies on neurophysiology6 Granit rated as “probably greater than any other person”.

    In1932, Sherrington shared the Nobel Prize with Edgar Douglas Adrian for work on the function of neurones. He bravely endured painful arthritis, and died on 4 March 1952.