Brain Dynamics:



Alan Lloyd Hodgkin Andrew Fielding Huxley
Alan Lloyd Hodgkin
Andrew Fielding Huxley

British scientists Sir Alan Lloyd Hodgkin (1914 - 1998) and Sir Andrew Fielding Huxley (born 1917) shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (along with John Eccles) for the work you've just read about on the biology and mathematics of the spike. This research was carried out in the 1930's and 1940's at Cambridge University, where Hodgkin and Huxley were also both educated as undergraduates, overlapping in their time at Trinity College. Their work was published in a famous series of five papers in the Journal of Physiology in 1952. From the Nobel to knighthood to the wonderful science and mathematics that followed, it's hard to top the impact and recognition of this work. As in most great discoveries, Hogkin and Huxley's work on the spike connects with and builds on the ideas of many, notably those of biophysicists and physiologists Bernard Katz (who co-authored one of the 1952 papers), Julius Bernstein, Kenneth Cole, Howard Curtis, and others.

Hodgkin and Huxley continued their eminent careers in science for decades. Among other contributions by both men, Hodgkin worked on the biophysics of sensory neuroscience, and Huxley developed an influential mathematical description of the "biological motors" that underly muscle mechanics.

Nobel Prizes linked to Hodgkin and Huxley's description of the spike did not stop in 1963. As we saw, one of the major predictions of this work is the existence of voltage-gated ion channels. This and other features of ion channels were confirmed by Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann through the "patch clamp" technique, leading in turn to their 1991 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.

and now...

Photo taken at NeuroMath06 Conference

Today, a broad and diverse international community of experimental and theoretical scientists trace their research to Hodgkin and Huxley's mathematics of the spike. The fact that their 1952 paper on this topic is cited in more than 7000 articles tells just part of the story. The rest is that the mathematics of the spike opens the door to the mathematics of the brain. The questions here are almost without bound, ranging from the operation of single neurons to the dynamics of small circuits and the cooperative action of whole populations of cells. Check out what's happening at your local university, biotech or research laboratory, and you'll be surprised to see scientists and mathematicians of all ages and backgrounds building the mathematics of the spike into the mathematics of vision, Parkinson disease, decision making, learning, and whatever else (perhaps even literally) comes to your mind's eye!

Sources and for more Information:

Rinzel, J. (1990). Electrical excitability of cells, theory and experiment: review of the Hodgkin-Huxley foundation and an update. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 52: 5-23.

Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1963-1970, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972.

Brain visualizations courtesy of Chris Johnson and Nathan Galli, Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, University of Utah