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The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube

  • Justin Garson (a1)

As historian Henning Schmidgen notes, the scientific study of the nervous system would have been “unthinkable” without the industrialization of communication in the 1830s. Historians have investigated extensively the way nerve physiologists have borrowed concepts and tools from the field of communications, particularly regarding the nineteenth-century work of figures like Helmholtz and in the American Cold War Era. The following focuses specifically on the interwar research of the Cambridge physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian, and on the technology that led to his Nobel-Prize-winning research, the thermionic vacuum tube. Many countries used the vacuum tube during the war for the purpose of amplifying and intercepting coded messages. These events provided a context for Adrian's evolving understanding of the nerve fiber in the 1920s. In particular, they provide the background for Adrian's transition around 1926 to describing the nerve impulse in terms of “information,” “messages,” “signals,” or even “codes,” and for translating the basic principles of the nerve, such as the all-or-none principle and adaptation, into such an “informational” context. The following also places Adrian's research in the broader context of the changing relationship between science and technology, and between physics and physiology, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

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Edgar D Adrian . 1913. “Wedensky Inhibition in Relation to the ‘All-Or-None’ Principle in Nerve.” Journal of Physiology 46:384412.

Edgar D Adrian . 1931. “Potential Changes in the Isolated Nervous System of Dytiscus Marginalis.” Journal of Physiology 72:132151.

Edgar D. Adrian , and Detlev W. Bronk . 1929b. “The Discharge of Impulses in Motor Nerve Fibres. Part II. The Frequency of Discharge in Reflex and Voluntary Contractions.” Journal of Physiology 67:119151.

Edgar D. Adrian , and Alexander Forbes . 1922. “The All-Or-Nothing Response of Sensory Nerve Fibers.” Journal of Physiology 56:301330.

Edgar D. Adrian , and Rachel Matthews . 1927a. “The Action of Light on the Eye. Part I. Discharge of Impulses in the Optic Nerve and its Relation to the Electric Changes in the Retina.”Journal of Physiology 63:378414.

Edgar D. Adrian , and Rachel Matthews . 1927b. “The Action of Light on the Eye. Part II. The Processes Involved in Retinal Excitation.” Journal of Physiology 64:279301.

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Science in Context
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  • EISSN: 1474-0664
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