Marco Catani and Stefano Sandrone, Brain Renaissance: From Vesalius to Modern Neuroscience

Marco Catani and Stefano Sandrone, Brain Renaissance: From Vesalius to Modern Neuroscience (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) 304pp. £38.99 Hb. ISBN: 9780199383832

Marco Catani and Stefano Sandrone, the authors of Brain Renaissance, from Vesalius to Modern Neuroscience, take as their starting point the famous physician Andreas Vesalius, and his publication De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543). Divided into three parts, the book focuses on the extraordinary life of one of the most influential doctors in medicine, Vesalius. The book gives a translation of his writings on the brain with commentary by the authors, followed by a final chapter with an overview of the most recent developments in neuroscience. Readers will learn about Vesalius´s remarkable dissections and the breakthrough in the development of medicine represented by his Fabrica.

Vesalius’s life is presented in the first chapter, as well as the path he followed in changing the medical traditions handed down from Galen. His story begins when Vesalius´s exploratory curiosity in the context of a family of physicians, inspired him to become a doctor. His career as a doctor started in Paris where Vesalius became an expert in human dissections, an expertise lacking amongst his professors. Later, at the University of Padua, he worked as an anatomist and performed public dissections to teach anatomy. His hard work came to fruition in the publication of a colossal review of human anatomy. He completed his Fabrica in Italy, but unfortunately, the book and his innovative descriptions were the butt of harsh criticism by many physicians including some of his professors. Vesalius had drawn important conclusions that changed some of Galen’s traditional teachings. Thus, the Fabrica, composed of seven books analyzing the human body, had the purpose of demonstrating that not all of Galen’s ideas were right or applicable to human anatomy.

After Italy, he moved to Spain where he worked for King Charles V, but Spain was still faithful to Galen’s teachings, and Vesalius was not able to continue undertaking research. Catani and Sandrone explain that by the end of his life, Vesalius had become a successful and dedicated man. He moved to Jerusalem with the aim of studying herbal remedies in Palestine, but after his journey, he died a death whose details are controverted and uncertain.

In the second part of the book, the authors begin with an English translation of the seventh book of the Fabrica. After each of Vesalius´s explanations of his short chapters, the authors explain and provide context for Vesalius´s ideas and give an account of the research done after his death on the chapters' topics. Numerous citations and references are provided during the discussion of these anatomical ideas, but the authors have synthesized the theories, making the book very readable, with the extraordinary stories of patients and physicians catching the reader’s attention .

Vesalius describes the brain in great detail, according it higher importance than the heart, in contrast to previous conceptions. Vesalius shows that what Galen affirmed about the brain in humans was wrong because his descriptions were based on animal observation rather than humans. Vesalius also showed that Galen had mistakenly attributed functions to parts of the human brain. His purpose was to demonstrate that anatomy required a review based on direct dissections and observations. Vesalius´s commentaries inaugurated an innovative line of research. The authors also highlight the work of many doctors who have arrived at impressive findings under the influence of Vesalius. Some of the discoveries which Vesalius´s teachings helped bring about were the location of the areas of speech, memory, and movement, as well as the identification of the function of small and overlooked parts of the brain such as the pineal gland. They also give an account of discoveries about the functions of the brain which have come about through patients with abnormalities such as the absence of parts of the brain, the development of tumours and their consequences, and deformities in brain areas.

The third and final part of the book is devoted to 'A Brief History of Neuroscience from Vesalius to Connectome.' Some of the research done after Vesalius had to do with neuronal fibers, the revolutionary connection between electricity and the brain, the gaps between cells, the mapping of the brain, the study of the brain in the dead and the living, and fundamentally new research make use of neuroimaging such as MRI. The mechanism of the brain has proved to be more intricate and dynamic than previously thought. At the end of the book, the authors have also added a concluding appendix with the figures of the Fabrica used by Vesalius.

Catani and Sandrone have produced a remarkable compilation of the history of neuroscience from Vesalius to the present day. The book highlights the complexity and wonder of the human body, specifically the brain and its functions. At the same time, the book honors the first physicians to observe and explore the human body like Vesalius. Catani and Sandrone's work is relevant both to students of medicine, and to those interested in Renaissance studies, medicine, and history.

Angela P. Pacheco, Purdue University