Brain Development Timeline

4000 BC

Ancient Sumerian records with the first recorded writing of the brain found. An anonymous writing documenting mind changing sensations caused by ingesting a poppy plant.

2500 BC

The Egyptians come to believe that the heart is the body’s most important organ. They believe the brain is minor and of no importance, discarding it during the process of mummification. Despite this, there is an ancient Egyptian record known as the “Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus” that contains the first written account of the anatomy of the brain. It includes 26 separate cases of brain injury along with recommendations of treatment.

2000 BC

There is evidence from archaeologists that during this time “trepanion”, a form of surgery involving boring a hole through the skull, was practiced widely.

Skulls with evidence pf healing have been recovered suggesting the subjects of these procedure survived. There is no known reason for the high volume of trepanioned skulls but it is suggested it was done for both spiritual reasons. And to treat thins such as headaches, mental illnesses and epilepsy.

450 BC

An early Greek physician, Alcmaeon, is the very first to use animal dissection as a basis for his theories. From his studies he concluded that the brain is the central organ of sensation and thought, not like the heart which the Egyptians believed. He also suggests that the optic nerves are “light-bearing paths” up to the eyes and brain.

335 BC

Aristotle comes to the conclusion that the heart is the organ of thought and sensation, and that the brain is merely a “radiator designed to cool it”. He believes that the basis of thought cannot be found within the body.

His theories of memory are more successful, correctly surmising that the process of short term memory (“immediate recall”) are different from those involved in long term memory.


An Oxford professor, Thomas Wills wrote a book about the cerebral hemispheres which account for 70% of the human brain. In it he states that they determine thought and action, and are completely different from other parts of the brain that control basic motor skills. In his book he introduces the words; ‘hemisphere,’ ‘pyramid,’ ‘lobe,’ ‘neurology,’ and ‘corpus striatum’ into modern vocabulary. His work is extremely influential in leading future neuroscientists with their studies of the brain


A railroad worker, Phineas Gage, survives a bizarre accident where an iron tod pierces the frontal lobe of his brain during an explosion. Although he recovered, he did experience some mood and behaviour changes. He went from being a quiet, hard worker, to someone who could not complete a job. It has been suggested that key parts of the personality reside in the frontal lobe. This lead to a procedure called lobotomy, which involved removing portions of the frontal lobe in the hope of curing mental illnesses and depression.


Sir Francis Galton published his work called the “Hereditary Genius”. This claimed that intelligence can only be inherited, and high levels of intellectual achievement are passed down through genetics.

He also made the first attempt to measure intelligence by setting up an “anthropometric laboratory”. In here he used visual acuity, auditory accuracy and breathing capacity to assess intelligence levels.


Wilhem Windt sets up the first human behaviour lab in Leipzig, Germany. He suggested that psychology should be regarded as a complementary scientific discipline to physiology and anatomy.

His lab is was known as the Institute for Experimental Psychology. Here student were taught philosopic and psychologic subjects including the studies of attention and sensory processes. The Institute became the model for most psychological laboratories established in Euorpoe thereafter.


Leading French psychologist, Alfred Binet, disputes Galton’s use pf sensory discrimination as an intelligence measure. He believed that individual differences in intelligence could be detected through measures of processes such as imagination, memory, comprehension and attention.

He is appointed to a commission concerned with integrating special needs children into the public school system in Paris. The committee decided a special education programme should be creates, and a system should be designed to identify these slower learning pupils entering school.

He collaborated with Theodore Simon to create a scale which measures higher mental processes such as imagination and memory. To test it, they drew samples from groups of children from schools, orphanages, hospitals and asylums. They carried out various cognitive tests which clearly discriminated between the normal school population and those in need of additional support. They introduced the scale in 1905, stressing it should only assess whether a child is of inferior intelligence and is not designed to identify the psychologically unstable.


A British neuroscientist, Henry Head publishes “Studies in Neurology”. Within it he documents his important students on the neurophysiology of sensory perception in the cerebral cortex. He especially focusses on patients’ spatial perceptions of their own bodies.


The Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach develops the ink blot test, or the Rorschach test as it is now known. This consists of ten standardised ink blots. Half in black and white, and half in colour. The subject is asked to describe what he sees in the “pictures” and his responses are analysed by the test giver on three areas, location, determinants and content.

Many psychiatrists have found animal and human sight to be useful clues to the patient’s psyches. It was used to identify personality traits and disorders, but it now not used so much as it is hard to independently validate the results.


Walter Rudolph Hess wins the Nobel Prize for work regarding the interbrain (hypothalamus, subthalamus and parts of the thalamus). His research indicates that the interbrain is responsible for the coordination of the body’s internal organs.


M.E Phelps, E.J Hoffman and M.M TER Pogossian develop the very first Positron Emission Topography (PET) scanner. This provides visual information about the activity of the brain. Patients are given a substance with radioactive atoms that emit positively charged particles (known as positrons). The gamma radiation resulting from this process is sensed by detectors and converted into cross-sectioned images of the brain by the computer. These scans are used to monitor things such as oxygen utilisation in the brain and blood flow.


US President George Bush declares this decade as the “Decade of the Brain”


Stanley B. Prusiner wins Nobel Prize for his discovery of a new genre of infectious agents called prions. Prions normally exist as harmless cellular proteins however they have the capacity to change their structures to configurations that can lead to a formation of harmful particles. Pruisner’s research found that prions can lead to  several brain diseases that can cause dementia in both animals and humans. This has also helped provide important insights into researching other types of illnesses related to dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.


The Nobel Prize is awarded to Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard and Eric Kandel for their discoveries of signal transduction in the nervous system. This happens when a message is sent from one nerve cell to another through a chemical transmitter. Carlsson, Greengard, and Kandel’s research hones in on signal transduction between nerve cells known as “slow synaptic transmission”. Their discovery has highlighted how disturbances in this can cause neurologic and psychiatric diseases.

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