The Female Minds in Neuroscience: the ones they don’t tell us about

Leeanne M. Vázquez-Ramírez • 2021 Science Communication Series Cohort

Left to right: Maria Manasseina (source), Cécile Vogt (source), Brenda Milner (source)



Growing up, I often sought guidance from my older female peers without even noticing. I am certainly most inspired by those who I identify with, and as an aspiring Puerto Rican woman neuroscientist, I have recognized the importance of this type of guidance from other women in STEM, especially for young girls. Because of this, I cannot help but admire female scientists who were pioneers in their field, especially neuroscientists, who did not have role models to look up to. In fact, these women paved the way for later generations.

While fighting for other injustices, women did not have a seat in developing neuroscience until the nineteenth century. In fact, they struggled to achieve a higher education and were not even included in scientific investigations. In addition, as demeaning as this sounds, women were thought to be less intelligent than men due to their smaller brains [1]. Throughout history, female neuroscientists have proven the inaccuracy of this statement.

You have probably heard of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Paul Broca, and other male neuroscientists, but what about female neuroscientists? Maria Manasseina was one such scientist who was devoted to investigating sleep deprivation and its effects on shortening lifespans [2]. She even wrote a sleep encyclopedia, which was the first book to extensively describe this activity. She had the insight that sleep did not correspond to a lack of brain activity even before electroencephalograms were invented [3]. However, before these findings, Maria had contributed to the early studies of alcohol fermentation. Unfortunately, her work was later discredited by her male counterparts—a phenomena that many female scientists fall victim to. Twenty-five years later, a German male scientist received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for replicating the same results that she had discovered [4]. But this isn’t surprising, right? We have heard of this type of story multiple times, and now it is our mission to talk about these unrecognized scientists and highlight their hard work.

Another female scientist that was against the prevailing prejudice of women was Augustine Marie Cécile Mugnier Vogt, or Cécile Vogt for short, a French Doctor of Medicine from the twentieth century. Much like the women from that time, Cécile struggled with gender discrimination. After marrying Oskar Vogt and moving to Berlin, she had to deal with Germans who were against women receiving an education and being involved in science [5]. Despite the injustices she faced, Cécile introduced pioneering studies of the nervous system structure that helped to understand many anatomical interactions in the brain. Her research proved to be extremely beneficial to the development of modern neuroscience. For example, she and her husband developed a map of the human brain that detailed many subdivisions that became the focus of future research [6]. In fact, renown scientist Korbinian Brodmann worked closely with both of them in order to elucidate different cytoarchitectonic divisions, or the cellular composition, of the brain [7]. Dr. Vogt also strayed from the popular misconception at the time that women were intellectually inferior to men [2]. More recent evidence has demonstrated that both women and men have the same average IQ scores [8].

In modern neuroscience, Brenda Milner, a Canadian neuropsychologist, performed studies on her patient Henry Molaison, or H.M., for 30 years, which led to the discovery of the principles of memory formation [9]. H.M. became a patient of interest after he had his medial temporal lobe bilaterally removed. This was done in an attempt to control his seizures. Despite the success of the operation, H.M. suffered severe memory impairment. He could not remember what he had done the day before or form new memories. He could, however, recall different procedures and acquire motor skills [10]. After this, Dr. Milner began studying this patient and was able to link episodic memory (e.g., past experiences) with the hippocampus, an important structure within the medial temporal lobe that is now researched extensively. To this day, the work of Dr. Milner and the case of H.M. is cited by numerous scientists.

The future is now. As I’m writing this, female neuroscientists are contributing extensively to this multidisciplinary world. Now more than ever, we are able to receive a higher education, are included in scientific research, and are highly involved in the field of neuroscience. Yet, there is still so much left to do. As an aspiring neuroscientist, I often find myself daydreaming about the possibility of someday achieving my goals and becoming like the women in neuroscience who inspire me, such as my research mentors. That said, we should not feel like it’s just a dream, but a matter of time and dedication. It is now the time to start supporting girls from a young age; to encourage them and let them know their participation and contributions are important. Programs, such as the Ciencia Puerto Rico program, Seeds for Success, should be implemented in schools to promote their scientific involvement at a young age, and for creating lifelong relationships between female scientists. Lastly, I want to encourage young girls to not let prejudices turn them away from their dreams, because they were not enough to do it for Manasseina, Vogt, Milner, and every woman in science.


References:

  1. Zuckerman, C. (2018). Why ignoring women has been bad for science. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/women-science-sexism-research

  2. Metitieri, T., & Mele, S. (2020). Women in neuroscience: A short time travel. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-819641-0.00007-4

  3. Wins, T. (n.d.). Maria Manasseina: sleep is not the absence of brain activity. WiNEu. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://wineurope.eu/maria-manasseina-sleep-is-not-the-absence-of-brain-activity/

  4. Favero, M., Mele, S. and Metitieri, T. (2017). Profile of Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved April 6, 2021, from https://wineurope.eu/manasseina-2/

  5. Akkermans, R. (2018). Cécile Vogt. The Lancet Neurology, 17(10), 846. doi.org/10.1016/s1474-4422(18)30002-4

  6. Gebhardt, U. (2018). Cécile Vogt, una neuróloga pionera. Retrieved April 6, 2021, fromhttps://www.investigacionyciencia.es/revistas/mente-y-cerebro/el-sentido-de-la-vida-736/ccile-vogt-una-neurloga-pionera-16374

  7. Favero, M., Mele, S. and Metitieri, T. (2017). Profile of Cécile Mugnier Vogt. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: The Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved from https://wineurope.eu/vogt-2/

  8. Zaidi, Z. F. (2010). Gender differences in human brain: A review. The Open Anatomy Journal, 2, 37-55. doi:10.2174/1877609401002010037

  9. Squire L. R. (2009). The legacy of patient H.M. for neuroscience. Neuron, 61(1), 6–9. doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2008.12.023

  10. Brenda Milner. The Neuro. (2020). https://www.mcgill.ca/neuro/about/brenda-milner.

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