Maria Manasseina: sleep is not the absence of brain activity

The birth of electroencephalography (EEG) applied to humans dates back to the 1920s, when Hans Berger for the first time measured the difference in electrical potential between two electrodes placed on the scalp. In the following years, the instrumentation was perfected more and more, and in 1953, Aserinsky and Kleitman described the REM sleep phase for the first time. 

Before the advent of electroencephalography, it was believed that during sleep there was no brain activity, that sleep was the absence of activity.

Still, a woman had the insight that things were not quite like that. Maria Manasseina in 1889 claimed that sleep represented a particular state of brain activity different from the absence of activity, as was commonly seen at that time: a remarkable intuition, considering the fact that the electroencephalogram did not yet exist.

But who was Manasseina?

Manasseina was one of the first European women to graduate in medicine. Probably born in 1841, she had the good fortune to live in a time when Russia was facing several institutional reforms. Tsar Alexander II reformed education, also extending the right to study to the poor: indeed, they were exempted from paying taxes and women were admitted to schools. 

The best students, including women, were encouraged to do traineeships at Western European universities. Maria Manasseina spent her period abroad in Vienna, at the polytechnic. Here she studied the processes of alcoholic fermentation and her results confirmed the “chemical” hypothesis of fermentation, proposed by Claude Bernard and Justus Liebig, rather than Louis Pasteur’s “physiological” hypothesis. It took about 25 years to replicate her results, confirmed by Eduard Buchner and, although he was aware of Manasseina’s work, he did not even mention her in his publications. Manasseina tried in vain to defend the authorship of the discovery, but was completely ignored. Buchner received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1907 for this discovery, but Manasseina’s name was completely forgotten.

The only luck was that Manasseina had died in 1903, sparing herself further humiliation.

But her most important contribution to neuroscience was the study of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation on the body. She published the first complete sleep manual in 1889, in Russian. The book was then translated into English and widely distributed in Europe in 1897, becoming the encyclopedia of sleep, the reference book of those times.

March the 17th marked the anniversary of this incredible woman’s death, a pioneer of sleep studies.

Read about Manasseina on her page

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