Here’s How Neuroscientists in the 1800s Studied Blood Flow in the Brain

New translations of early neuroscience reveal how in 1882 one Italian physiologist was able to measure blood flow changes in the brain

Shannan Muskopf

We tend to think of neuroscience as a modern pursuit: using technology to peer into the inner workings of the brain to understand how our minds work. But all the way back in the 19th century, scientists were trying to figure out how changes in the brain might impact people. And new translations of manuscripts from the 1880s describe one of the first studies to look at blood flow to the brain—the same measurement that our modern fMRI looks for. 

In 1882, an Italian physiologist named Angelo Mosso was measuring changes in blood flow to the brain. Mosso’s work was referenced a few years later in a paper, but his original work was lost until a recent paper by Stefano Sandrone, whose team unearthed and retranslated Mosso’s original manuscripts. Harsha Radhakrishnan at United Academics explains what Mosso did:

The subjects were told to lie down and be at rest so as to ensure the blood was distributed equally within the body tissues, before the barycenter and central pivot of the fulcrum overlapped. Mosso had thought through this experiment to such a fine detail that respiration, respiration induced fluctuations, head and other movements, and changes in volume in other peripheries were all either recorded or corrected for. Remarkably, his experiment paradigm is a model we use even today. He was shrewd enough to take a baseline reading (resting state, if you may) and proceeded to use a series of stimuli with increasing cognitive processing (in a block or event-related design as used in fMRI). He found that the balance tilted faster towards the head as the task increased in complexity

After publishing their translation of Mosso’s work, another team tried to reproduce his experiments and were able to prove that he could indeed have measured local changes in blood volume in the brain. While Mosso didn’t have any fancy fMRI machines to work with, he did have an idea, and with it was able to do some exceptional science way ahead of his time. 

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