The Erratic History of Electroencephalography

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Anton Coenen


The history of electroencephalography begins around 1850 with a supposition of Emil du Bois-Reymond concerning the transfer of information by electric currents over the nerve to the effector. Luigi Galvani in Bologna showed with his frog legs experiments 1786 indeed the existence of animal electricity. Richard Caton in Liverpool placed in 1875 as the first electrodes on the brains of rabbits and was able to record the electrical brain activity. Caton received little attention for his research and left with his animal experiment aversion the field. In contrast to Caton, Adolf Beck in Kraków, got a huge attention for his recordings of the electrical activities of the frog brain. The most interesting response to his important paper of 1890 came from Vasili Danilewski from Charkov, mentioning his unpublished doctoral thesis of 1877. He did his dog recordings before Beck, but one year after Caton who send him his abstract, remaining that he discovered before him electric brain waves. Colleagues of Danilewski such as Práwdicz- Neminski from Kyiv performed also adequate work in this field, but due to Stalin's dogmatic regime, electrophysiology became prohibited and disappeared in Russian. Jewish Adolf Beck, now professor in Lwów, experienced there in war time in 1940 dangerous times and ultimately the Nazi’s came for him. His son succeeded to hand him a cyanide capsule to save him from the gas chamber. By the tragedies of the war in Poland and the split between East and West Europe, Beck and his work go lost. Hans Berger began in Jena with brain recordings in humans and in 1927 he exclaimed ‘I can record brain actvity from an intact human skull’. This was replicated abd agreed upon by Edgar Adrian in 1934, and Berger received international fame, but not in Germany. The often authoritative Berger hated the Nazi’s and was suspended by the regime. He came in a severe depression and ended his life by hanging in June 1941. In this heavy war time, electrophysiology moved to the USA. Frederic and Erna Gibbs at Harvard got, with their studies of epilepsy in 1934 a breakthrough in clinical electroencephalography, Alfred Loomis and Herbert Jasper used the electrical brain actvity to identify several stages of sleep. Later, Jasper performed in Montreal, with neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, important research on focal epilepsies. After the second world war, around 1950, electroencephalography blossomed up, in the USA as well as in Europe. Recording electroencephalograms for studying the functioning of the brain and in particular investigating domains of sleep and epilepsy. It became common that almost every university and hospital had a resording device. That electroencephalography was a mature methodology, was demonstrated by great discoveries for example through the finding of REM sleep by Kleitman and Aserinski in 1953.

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COENEN, Anton. The Erratic History of Electroencephalography. Medical Research Archives, [S.l.], v. 12, n. 6, july 2024. ISSN 2375-1924. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 22 july 2024. doi:
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