The Research Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology can trace its roots back to the establishment of UCL in 1826. The core of the Department is based on the original Departments of Physiology and of Pharmacology. One of the founding chairs of UCL was in Comparative Anatomy.
From this area, the discipline of Physiology emerged to provide a basis for many of the discoveries in medicine then being made. The teaching of physiology was also designed to give Medical School students a proper scientific grounding.
The first Chair of Physiology was created at UCL in 1874. It was named the Jodrell Chair and the first holder was John Burdon-Sanderson. In 1871, Sanderson had reported that Penicillium inhibited the growth of bacteria. This finding placed him amongst the forerunners of Alexander Fleming.
In 1899 the chair passed to Ernest Starling who held it until 1923. Starling made several significant contributions to physiology including the discovery of the hormone secretin (with his brother-in-law William Bayliss) as well as writing the leading textbook of physiology in English.
Archibald (A.V.) Hill held the Jodrell Chair between 1923 and 1926. Hill was one of the founders of biophysics and operations research. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the production of heat and mechanical work in muscles.
In 1933 Hill was one of the founders of the Academic Assistance Council which became the Society of the Protection of Science and Learning. By the start of World War 2, the organisation had saved 900 academics (18 of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes) from the Nazis. And in 1935 he served with Patrick Blackett and Sir Henry Tizard on the committee that created the radar.
As a result of Hill's research, a Department of Biophysics was created at UCL in 1952. The first head of the Department was Bernard Katz. Hill was Katz's mentor.
In 1971, Bert Sakmann moved to UCL and worked under Bernard Katz for two years as a postdoctoral researcher. It was in Katz's lab that he developed his interest in the molecular aspects of synaptic transmission. In 1991, he and Erwin Neher received the Nobel Prize for their work on the function of single ion channels.
Andrew Huxley held the Jodrell Chair between 1960 and 1969. In 1954 Huxley and Rolf Niedergerke discovered the mechanism of muscle contraction or the "sliding filament theory" which remains the foundation of our understanding of muscle mechanics.
In 1963 Huxley won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Alan Lloyd Hodgkin for their discovery of the basis for the propagation of nerve impulses.
As the Department of Physiology essentially focussed on the science behind medicine, it was understandable that it grew into many other departments as the knowledge of that science developed over the years. Even in these very early years, medical sciences, became prominent and the first Professoriate at UCL included A.T.Thompson as Professor of Materia Medica and Pharmacy (later termed Materia Medica and Therapeutics). With the founding of the Institute of Medical Sciences in 1905, the Department of Pharmacology was established in 1905 the first of its type in England.
The first holder of the Chair of Pharmacology was Arthur Cushny. He held the chair from 1905 to 1918. Of his many achievements, he introduced the Cushny myograph, an ingenious arrangement of counterbalanced levers that allowed the faithful recording of the rate and force of contraction of the rapidly beating animal heart. It was still in use in practical classes at UCL, and elsewhere, in the 1960s.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the Chair next from 1918 to 1926. He was instrumental in the transition of pharmacology from a descriptive subject to a quantitative science.
Ernest Basil Verney held the Chair from 1926 to 1934. While at UCL Verney discovered the antidiuretic hormone and also the mechanism by which structures in the brain sense minute changes in blood osmotic pressure.
From 1935 to 1938 John Gaddum FRS was the Chair of the Department of Pharmacology. He extended A.J. Clark's work on competitive antagonism, and applied the law of mass action to describe the relationship (the Gaddum equation) between receptor occupancy and the concentrations of an agonist and a competitive antagonist at equilibrium with the receptors in a tissue.
Frank Winton was the Chair of Pharmacology from 1938 to 1961. His main scientific interest was in the control of blood flow to the kidney, he led the department during the difficult war years and he appointed the first two female academics in the department, Mary Lockett and Hannah Steinberg.
From 1961 to 1973 Heinz Otto Schild held the Chair. Schild made major contributions to receptor pharmacology, to the understanding of the mechanism of histamine release and to bioassay. His name is immortalised by the Schild equation. He oversaw the planning and introduction of a three-year B.Sc. course in Pharmacology which began in 1967 and continues to this day.
Sir James Whyte Black held the Chair from 1973 to 1978. He transformed the treatment of gastric ulcers during his time and whilst at UCL introduced a BSc course in Medicinal Chemistry that continues to this day. In 1988 Black received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Gertrude B. Elion and George H. Hitchings for their work on drug development.
From 1979 to 1983 Humphrey Rang was the holder of the Chair. He was the author of the first successful ligand-binding experiment of the modern era. In collaboration with M. Maureen Dale, Rang prepared the first edition of Pharmacology, the successor to Wilson & Schild's Applied Pharmacology.
In 1985 David Colquhoun was appointed the established Chair of Pharmacology, which went on to become the A.J. Clark chair. His work, with statistician Alan Hawkes and Bert Sakmann (Nobel prize 1991) established the department as a leader in both the theoretical and experimental analysis of single ion channels
In the 1980s the traditional role of head of Department at UCL was replaced by rotating headships that were not necessarily associated with an established chair.
David A. Brown was head of the Pharmacology department from 1987 to 2002. David Brown is renowned for his discovery of the acetylcholine (muscarinic)-sensitive potassium channel (M channel).
Trevor G Smart FMedSci was appointed head of the Pharmacology department in 2002 and also then of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology in 2006 until 2021. He is renowned for his structure-function studies of a major neurotransmitter receptor in the brain – the GABAA receptor.
Neuroscience became the name (from the early 1970's onwards) for the field which encompassed all aspects of brain and neuronal function that had grown up from research in Physiology, Biophysics, Pharmacology, Cell Biology and Anatomy. The first Centre for Neuroscience was founded at UCL by Professor Geoffrey Burnstock, then head of the Dept of Anatomy, who recognised the importance of bringing together neuroscience research scientists across the whole campus.
This period also marked one of the first undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience which is still a highly regarded and successful degree course run by NPP today.
In 2008, UCL established a Neuroscience research domain (chaired by Trevor Smart) to coordinate all research at the university in this area. UCL Neuroscience comprises over 490 senior principal investigators and includes 26 Fellows of the Royal Society and 60 Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences. It has been ranked second in the world for neuroscience and behaviour by Thomson ISI Essential Science Indicators.
Neuroscience has a strong history of excellence pain research, from Thomas Lewis’ publication ‘Pain’ in 1942 to Patrick Wall and the ‘gate theory of pain’ in the 1960’s.
More recently, Professor Maria Fitzgerald FRS of UCL Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology has pioneered the field of developmental neurophysiology of pain, leading to a greater understanding and treatment of pain in infants and children. Her most recent work demonstrates that early life pain alters adult brain connectivity, which may explain the impact of childhood pain upon adult chronic pain vulnerability.
Maria is a member of the new Medawar Somatosensory Labs which are taking pain, sensory and motor research in new directions together with early career members of NPP, Lorenzo Fabrizi and Stephanie Koch and CDB.
David Attwell discovered that, although brain blood flow is often thought to be controlled solely by the smooth muscle around arterioles, contractile cells (pericytes) at roughly 100 micron intervals along capillaries also play a major role, especially in pathologies such as stroke and Alzheimer's disease.
In 2007, a reorganisation at UCL resulted in the disestablishment of the departments of Pharmacology and Physiology. Both Departments became part of a new Research Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology led by Trevor Smart until 2021.
In 2021, Stephanie Schorge succeeded Trevor Smart as the head of NPP.
The UCL neuroscience research domain spans the broad width of UCL Neuroscience research from cellular, molecular and developmental studies, to systems neuroscience and behavior from healthy and diseased perspectives. UCL is unique worldwide in its the breadth of expertise across such a large number of areas relevant to neuroscience. A major aim of the Domain is promote interaction and collaboration across all disciplines including cognate areas to neuroscience
The size and depth of UCL’s Neuroscience research community means that our researchers can focus on their areas of expertise and push the knowledge of that area to the next level. Often the largest breakthroughs are stimulated by the cross-disciplinary collaboration that is so fundamental to UCL as well as the integral UCL value of freedom of investigation.
UCL also has a proven track record of interactions between physical and life sciences. Lab findings can and are translated into practical applications within UCL.
UCL offers some of the most prestigious undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programmes in Neuroscience and Pharmacology in the world. The top students in these areas are attracted by the fact that many of their lecturers will be the leading international experts in their fields. UCL's research-based teaching approach means that students learn about the most recent advances in the fields they are studying - often as they are happening.
Unlike many similar universities, UCL still places considerable emphasis on gaining practical experience in laboratories for its scientists. They continue to focus their recruitment on students from a multitude of backgrounds who are all linked by both their curiosity and ability to think outside of the box. Access to these bright minds then attracts the top fellows and post-doctoral candidates, as well as stimulating our most experienced Primary Investigators.