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The Agony and the Ecstasy

Episode 8 of 10

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 16 November 2011

Dr Geoff Bunn's 10 part History of the Brain is a journey through 5000 years of our understanding of this complex organ in our heads. From Neolithic times to the present day, he reveals the contemporary beliefs about what the brain is for and how it fulfils its functions.

While referencing the core physiology and neuroscience, this is a cultural, not a scientific history. What soon becomes obvious is that our understanding of this most inscrutable organ has in all periods been coloured by the social and political expedients of the day no less than by the contemporary scope of scientific or biological exploration.

Episode 8: The Agony and the Ecstasy, focuses on the collaborative work between Otto Loewi in Austria and Henry Dale in England. They established that communication within the brain is chemical and not electrical. Thanks to the work of many exiles from Nazism (and a leech smuggled out by one of them) the vital role of acetylcholine became known. This work laid the foundation for the neuropharmalogical gold rush of the 1950s, with the discovery of drugs to help those suffering from schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.

The series is entirely written and presented by Dr Geoff Bunn of Manchester Metropolitan University, with actors Paul Bhattacharjee and Jonathan Forbes providing the voices of those who have written about the brain from Ancient Egypt to the present day, and actor Hattie Morahan giving the Anatomy Lesson which establishes the part of the brain to be highlighted in each episode - in this instance the neurotransmitters actylcholine and adrenalin. The original, atmospheric score is supplied by composer, Barney Quinton.

Producer: Marya Burgess.

  • View of the left side of Nobel Prize awarded to Sir Henry H Dale and Professor Otto Loewi in 1936

    View of the left side of Nobel Prize awarded to Sir Henry H Dale and Professor Otto Loewi in 1936

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

  • Sir Henry Dale and Professor Otto Loewi 1936

    Sir Henry Dale and Professor Otto Loewi 1936

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Sir Henry Dale (physiologist) and Professor Otto Loewi (Professor of Pharmacology ) outside the Grand Hotel, Stockholm at the time of the presentation to them of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, 1936

  • Ergot


    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Illustrated advertisement from British Medical Journal for 'Ernutin', an ergot preparation used to control bleeding from the womb. Manufactured by Burroughs Wellcome, London

    Sir Henry Dale investigated the properties of ergot and its affect on the brain

    Ergot grows naturally on rye and other cereals. Eating too much can cause long-term poisoning, known as ergotism. The condition is sometimes referred to as ‘St Anthony’s fire’. Symptoms include convulsions and hallucinations.

  • Sir Charles Scott Sherrington

    Sir Charles Scott Sherrington

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

  • The Science Explorer

    The Science Explorer

    Explore the big ideas from A History of the Brain with the Science Explorer, featuring hundreds of programmes from the Radio 4 science archive

    Science Explorer - Dr Geoff Bunn


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