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Adrian, Edgar Douglas, Baron Adrian

nerve rises intensity war

(1889–1977) British neurophysiologist: showed frequency code in nerve transmission.

Adrian began his research in physiology in Cambridge before the First World War, but in 1914 he speedily qualified in medicine and tried to get to France. In fact he was kept in England working on war injuries and his later work was a mixture of ‘pure’ research and applications to medical treatment.

In the 1920s he began his best-known work. Already, crude methods were available for detecting electrical activity in nerve fibres. Adrian used thermionic diode amplifiers to reliably record nerve impulses in a single nerve fibre, and to show that they do not change with the nature or strength of the stimulus, confirming work by his friend K Lewis (1881–1945) in 1905 on this ‘all or none’ law. He went on to show that a nerve transmits information to the brain on the intensity of a stimulus by frequency modulation, ie as the intensity rises the number of discharges per second (perhaps 10–50) in the nerve also rises – a fundamental discovery. He then worked on the brain, using the discovery by in 1924 that electrical ‘brainwaves’ can be detected.

From 1934 he studied these brainwave rhythms, which result from the discharge of thousands of neurones and which can be displayed as an electroencephalogram (EEG). Within a few years the method was widely used to diagnose epilepsy cases, and later to locate lesions, eg those due to tumours or injury.

Adrian was linked with Trinity College Cambridge for nearly 70 years and did much to advance neurophysiology. He was a very popular figure; as a student he was a skilful night roof-climber and an excellent fencer, and he sailed and rock-climbed until late in life. He helped to organize a famous hoax exhibition of modern pictures in 1913. He was never solemn, moved very quickly and claimed his own brainwaves were as rapid as a rabbit’s; as a motorist his quick reflexes alarmed his passengers. When in a hurry he would use a bicycle in the long dark basement corridors of the Physiological Laboratory. He shared a Nobel Prize in 1932.

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