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Nissl was born in Frankenthal to Theodor Nissl and Maria Haas. Theodor taught Latin in a Catholic school and desired that Franz become a priest. However Franz entered the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich to study medicine.
One of Nissl's university professors was Bernhard von Gudden. His assistant, Sigbert Josef Maria Ganser suggested that Nissl write an essay on the pathology of the cells of the cortex of the brain. When the medical faculty offered a competition for a prize in neurology in 1884, Nissl did undertake the brain-cortex study. He used alcohol as a fixative and developed a staining technique that allowed demonstrating several new nerve-cell constituents. Nissl won the prize, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the same topic in 1885.
Career in medical research and education
Professor von Gudden was the judge in Nissl's college-essay competition, and he was so impressed with the study that he offered Nissl an assistantship at the Oberbayerische Kreis-Irrenanstalt Haar in Munich which von Gudden headed. Nissl accepted, and remained in that post from 1885 until 1888. In 1888 Nissl moved to the Institution Blankenheim. In 1889 he went to Frankfurt as second in position under Emil Sioli (1852-1922) at the Städtische Irrenanstalt. There he met neurologist Ludwig Edinger and neuropathologist Karl Weigert, who was developing a neuroglial stain. This work motivated Nissl to study mental and nervous diseases by relating them to observable changes in glial cells, blood elements, blood vessels and brain tissue in general.
In Frankfurt Nissl became acquainted with Alois Alzheimer, and they collaborated over seven years. They became close friends, jointly editing the Histologische und histopathologische Arbeiten über die Grosshirnrinde (1904-1921).
In 1895 Emil Kraepelin invited Nissl to become assistant physician at the University of Heidelberg. By 1904 he was a full professor at that institution, and became director of the Department of Psychiatry when Kraepelin moved to Munich.
Later life and death
The burden of teaching and administration, combined with poor research facilities, forced Nissl to leave many scientific projects unfinished. He also suffered from a kidney disease. During World War I he was charged with administering a large military hospital.
In 1918 Kraepelin again invited Nissl to accept a research position at the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie in Munich. After one year at that position, where he performed research alongside Korbinian Brodmann and Walther Spielmeyer, he died in 1919 of kidney disease.
Nissl also examined the neural connections between the human cortex and thalamic nuclei; he was in the midst of this study at the time of his death.
An example of his research philosophy is taken from his 1896 writings:
- As soon as we agree to see in all mental derangements the clinical expression of definite disease processes in the cortex, we remove the obstacles that make impossible agreement among alienists.
Nissl was of small stature, with poor posture. He had a birthmark on his left face. He never married, and his life revolved entirely around his work.
Named Histology Concepts
The Nissl method uses basic aniline to stain RNA blue, and is used to highlight important structural features of neurons. The Nissl substance (rough endoplasmic reticulum) appears dark blue due to the staining of ribosomal RNA, giving the cytoplasm a mottled appearance. Individual granules of extranuclear RNA are named Nissl granules (ribosomes). DNA present in the nucleus stains a similar color.
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