Research for the fun of it
From time to time it's time to shine a spotlight on the unrecognized heroes of neuroscience and their forgotten exploits. To name the names that the Nobel Prize committee never mentioned, to acknowledge the results that interested no one. Because oblivion, the dark moloch, devours everything, unimportant and irrelevant first. But you don't know if it's really unimportant, you've forgotten it. So: Save the heroic fighters at the secondary battlefields in the history of science, save their results, the most obscure and abstruse first, because they are the most endangered.
Well then, we're talking about a fish and his researcher. The fish first. It's a lamprey - because some moron (not our researcher!) added the seven gill openings on one side to the two eyes on either side. But on the other side there are seven more gill openings - so "sixteen eyes" would be the right name if you wanted to do this nonsense consistently.
The fish is cigar-shaped overall, that will play a role. It is also extremely tasty (when smoked), but this does not matter in the following. Its way of life is not very appetizing: It uses its toothy sucking mouth to attach itself to other fish, rasping them and sucking them out. So it takes a certain amount of eccentricity, a willingness to be obscure and outlandish, to choose this fish of all things for your research topic.
Well, you can always get a little more obscure. This fish has a number of nerve cells called "posterior cells" in its brain and spinal cord. They are the object of the concentrated disinterest of about 99, 999 percent of all brain researchers. As for the general public, one can certainly add a few more nines after the decimal point. So, within the scope of this column's objective, these cells are highly relevant!
These posterior cells, as our researcher showed in his dissertation, are sensory cells – they send out processes into the posterior roots of cranial and spinal nerves. Today we know that they react to touch. What is unusual is that these cells are located in the central nervous system, since almost all other sensory cells in almost all other vertebrates are outside of it. Insanely exciting, isn't it? And even if you still know that we humans still have a number of these cells - they are in the brain and measure the state of tension of our masticatory muscles - even then you can only grudgingly admit that this is actually really uninteresting.
No, this research lacks the erotic, the tingling, the relevance, the eros. What is really exciting, however, is the sex life of the fish, which the posterior cells have nothing to do with. Lampreys, male and female, eat their fill in the sea as parasites on fish. And then, when Eros overcomes them, they swim home, into the murmuring streams of their birth, that is, into fresh water, to mate and spawn. Simultaneously with Eros, however, they are seized by Thanatos, the death instinct: for as they wander upstream to indulge in love in the creek bed of their birth, their stomachs and intestines dwindle to the extent that their sexual organs mature. Even if they wanted to eat, they couldn't do it anymore because they didn't have a stomach - more precisely: there wasn't a cavity in the stomach and intestines, because they just overgrow. Then they mate, happily one hopes, only to starve to death exhausted from fertilization and egg-laying.
Sex, love, death - if that's not an issue. Our researcher must have thought the same thing while he thoughtfully drew on his cigar. He turned away from the posterior cells and towards Eros and Thanatos. However, that of humans.
It was Sigmund Freud.
Everything written here is true, the original quote from Freud's publication is:
Freud, Sigmund: On the origin of the posterior nerve roots in Ammocoetes planeri.
Meeting reports of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, mathematical-scientific class, volume LXXV/III, 15ff., 1877.
The assumption that Freud arrived at the theory of Thanatos and Eros as antagonistic human drives through his study of the sexual life of lampreys is unsupported.
Helmut Wicht holds a PhD in biology and is a private lecturer in anatomy at the Dr. Senckenberg Anatomy from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.