Pioneers in CNS inhibition: 2. Charles Sherrington and John Eccles on inhibition in spinal and supraspinal structures


This article reviews the contributions of the English neurophysiologist, Charles Scott Sherrington [1857-1952], and his Australian PhD trainee and collaborator, John Carew Eccles [1903-1997], to the concept of central inhibition in the spinal cord and brain. Both were awarded Nobel Prizes; Sherrington in 1932 for "discoveries regarding the function of neurons," and Eccles in 1963 for "discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in central portions of the nerve cell membrane." Both spoke about central inhibition at their Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies. The subsequent publications of their talks were entitled "Inhibition as a coordinative factor" and "The ionic mechanism of postsynaptic inhibition", respectively. Sherrington's work on central inhibition spanned 41 years (1893-1934), and for Eccles 49 years (1928-1977). Sherrington first studied central inhibition by observing hind limb muscle responses to electrical (peripheral nerve) and mechanical (muscle) stimulation. He used muscle length and force measurements until the early 1900s and electromyography in the late 1920s. Eccles used these techniques while working with Sherrington, but later employed extracellular microelectrode recording in the spinal cord followed in 1951 by intracellular recording from spinal motoneurons. This considerably advanced our understanding of central inhibition. Sherrington's health was poor during his retirement years but he nonetheless made a small number of largely humanities contributions up to 1951, one year before his death at the age of 94. In contrast, Eccles retained his health and vigor until 3 years before his death and published prolifically on many subjects during his 22 years of official retirement. His last neuroscience article appeared in 1994 when he was 91. Despite poor health he continued thinking about his life-long interest, the mind-brain problem, and was attempting to complete his autobiography in the last years of his life.

Journal details

Journal Brain Research
Volume 1734
Pages 146540
Available online
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