Ireland had an abundance of head injuries a couple of hundred years ago which made it a good place to study how our brains work, write Prof Seán Commins and Prof Richard RocheDepartment of Psychology

The field of neuroscience provides fascinating and important insights into how our brains work. While there is still much we do not understand, recent advances in technology allow neuroscientists, researchers and doctors to have clear images of the brain and its various structures, as well as patterns of blood flow, oxygen usage and electrical activity. Some of this technology can highlight moment by moment changes in the brain as we engage in different types of thoughts and activities.

But although considered a very modern discipline, neuroscience has a long and rich history in Ireland. The earliest explorations and understandings of how the brain worked were typically due to head injuries and their resulting side effects being examined by medical doctors. As it turns out, it seems Ireland a couple of hundred years ago may have been a particularly good place to study this due to an abundance of head injuries.

Limerick born doctor Sylvester O'Halloran (1728-1807) wrote in 1793 that "there is no part of the habitable globe, that for half a century past, has afforded such an ample field of observations on injuries of the head, as Ireland in general; this province of Munster in particular!". Some of the reasons he gave for this wealth of head injuries were due to the fiery nature of the Irish and a love of  "spirituous liquers, particularly whiskey".

O’Halloran suggested that the Irish "soon catch fire: a slight offence is frequently followed by serious consequences; and sticks, stones and every other species of offence next to hand, are dealt out with great liberality!". He noted that "many of our fairs, patrons, and hurling-matches, terminate in bloody conflicts". However, he was grateful for the "superior advantages Irish surgeons have long possessed over those of the neighbouring nations".

However, O’Halloran was not the first Irishman to provide insight into the brain. The late 17th and 18th centuries also saw significant contributions from such luminaries as William Molyneux (1656-1698) and George Berkeley (1685-1753). Some might claim that the title of first Irish neuroscientist could be awarded to the mysterious 6th century saint Áed mac Bricc, who was known for his ability to heal headaches.

Another figure of note in the history of Irish neuroscience was Jonathan Osborne (1794–1864). In 1833, the Dublin made a ground-breaking though frequently overlooked contribution to our understanding of how language is produced in the brain. He described a patient who had difficulty in producing speech, which we now know as conduction aphasia. Patients with this condition may be able to understand what is spoken but their own speech, while initially sounding fluid with long complete sentences, is actually gibberish.

Osborne reported this case of aphasia 40 years in advance of German physician Karl Wernicke (1848-1905), to whom the discovery of this type of aphasia is usually attributed. Wernicke substantially advanced our understanding of the part of the brain associated with language production, typically located in the left temporal lobe. This part of the brain is named in his honour, such was the importance of this work (Wernicke’s area). While Osborne’s work on aphasia is less well known than Wernicke’s, Osborne also displayed a similarly impressive knack for foresight in relation to memory, speculating about different types of memories over 100 years before these ideas were adopted in mainstream neuroscience.

The 1800s also saw substantial advancements in our understanding of the brain, with further insights from Irish figures such as William O'Shaughnessy (1809-1889) and George Sigerson (1836-1925). Dublin-born sisters Edith Anne Stoney (1869–1938) and Florence Ada Stoney (1870–1932), would go on to break new ground in how we visualise the brain. Edith Anne was considered the first female medical physicist, while her sister is known as the first female radiologist in Ireland. Both left a long-lasting legacy having played a significant part in the early development of the fields of radiology and medical physics, paving the way for women entering medical professions.

This tradition of pioneering Irish women in neuroscience was continued in the 20th century by Anita Harding (1952 – 1995). Born in Ireland, Harding was adopted by a family in the English Midlands and went to school in Birmingham. While lecturing at University College London's Institute of Neurology in 1985, she established the first neurogenetics research group in the UK. Her work opened up important new avenues of research in the study of neurological conditions and their molecular and neurogenetic bases.

Today, neuroscience is an important and thriving discipline. The advancements that are made each year in understanding the brain are built on a long and rich history, a history which boasts substantial contributions from Irish pioneers such as O’Halloran, Osborne, the Stoney Sisters, Harding and many others.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm. 

Additional writers for this piece include: Dr Suzanne Egan is a lecturer and researcher in the Deptartment of Psychology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick and Dr Joanne Kenney is Senior Clinical Scientist at Clinical Science Laboratory, Ieso.