Connecting European Neuroscience

Marco Piccolino

History Committee member 2014 - 2018


Maturità classica in the ‘Liceo’ Vitruvio Pollione, Formia. 1964. (Best graduated of the year)

M. D. Catholic University of Rome, 1970 (cum laude). “A. Gemelli” award as the best graduated of the Faculty of Medicine for 1970).

Ph.D. Course: Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, 1970-1972.


1970-1986 Italian National Research Council staff researcher at the Institute of Neurophysiology of Pisa, Italy.

1976-1979 Foreign researcher at the École Normale Supérieure of Paris

1986-2010 Full Professor of General Physiology, University of Ferrara, Italy (I retired in 2010 from this position in order to devote myself full time to the research in the field of science history)

1991-1992 Visiting Professor at the Departments of Physiology of the Tokyo University

2008 One year fellowship as Visiting Professor (Professeur invité) Université de Paris VII (Paris Diderot), Department of Sciences, Philosophy, History (Laboratoire SPHERE)

July 2008 One month travel and staying award to conduct historical research on animal electricity at the Library of the "Bakken" institution of Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA).

2002-2010 Lecturer of "Epistemology and History of Life Sciences", University of Ferrara.

Present position

Member of the Italian Institute of Neurosciences University of Ferrara, Italy.

Research interests

Experimental science

In the first of my scientific life, my main research interests are in the study of synaptic transmission mechanisms in the vertebrate retina and their functional consequences for vision. In the past I have investigated the mechanism of both forward and feedback transmission from photoreceptors to horizontal cells of the turtle retina (in collaboration with Luigi Cervetto at the Institute of Neurophysiology of the C.N.R. of Pisa (Italy), and with Hersch Gerschenfeld at Laboratory of Neurobiology of the École Normale Supérieure of Paris (France). In Paris I have also worked with Gerschenfeld, Jacques Neyton and Paul Witkovsky (from the New York University) on the role of dopamine in modulating the permeability of gap junctions among retinal horizontal cells. I have also collaborated with Masao Tachibana, at the Department of Psychology of the University of Tokyo, in the study of the mechanism of release of synaptic transmitter from retinal bipolar cells. Subsequently my research work has been focussed on the investigation of the effect of divalent cations on synaptic transmission from photoreceptors to horizontal cells in turtle and salamander retina. This study, started in 1994 at the University of Ferrara, in collaboration with Alexei Byzov of the Russian Academy of Science, has since then continued involving collaboration with the group of Steve Barnes, then at the University of Calgary, Andrey Dmitriev of the University of Alabama, Peter McNaughton and Vittorio Vellani, then at the King’s College of London. In pursuing further this research I have worked in collaboration with Wallace Thoreson, of the Nebraska University Medical Center. The surprising conclusion of these studies is that the so called synaptic transmission from photoreceptors to horizontal cells is not really “calcium-independent”. This is because the retina is superfused with solutions containing nominally very low concentrations of calcium, the calcium-concentration in the extracellular space of the retina is reduced only by a modest amount, and surprisingly calcium entry into synaptic terminals of photoreceptors can even increase. This paradoxical effect results from a modification of external surface potential in photoreceptors due to lowering calcium, and is accounted for by the ‘surface charge theory’.

The results of my studies on the retina have been published in the most important scientific journals, as for instance Nature, Science, The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Science of the U.S.A, The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, The Journal of Neurosciences, The Journal of Physiology, The Journal of Neurophysiology, The European Journal of Neuroscience.

Teaching experience

Staring from 1986 and ending in 2010 I have been teaching General Physiology to the students of the Course of Natural Sciences of the University of Ferrara (Italy) in quality of Full Professor of this discipline. From the start, because of my strong interest for the wide cultural and historical aspect of science, my teaching was largely based on historical annotations and I tried to avoid that science could be felt by students as a pure accumulation of technical notion, exclusively pertaining to a specialist and narrowly-minded education. Eventually, in 2002, I was appointed lecturer of Epistemology and History of Life Sciences. My teaching was largely based on the research that I was carrying out personally, particularly in the field of the history of electrophysiology and in the study of Galileo and his interest in vision. I enjoyed very much teaching in this course and in 2005 I published a book largely based on the lectures that I was giving to my students (Lo Zufolo e la cicala...). A leitmotif of this book is the need to put together science, its history and all its cultural dimension, an attitude that I have constantly pursued in my teaching activity.

Main Publications


Piccolino, M. (2014) La storia di Pietro / Testimone per caso a Sant'Anna di Stazzema. Pisa, Edizioni ETS (in the press)

Piccolino, M., & Wade N. J. (2014) Galileo's Visions Piercing the spheres of the heavens by eye and mind Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Piccolino, M. (2013). Shocking frogs: Galvani, volta, and the electric origins of neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press

Finger, S., & Piccolino, M. (2011). The shocking history of electric fishes: From ancient epochs to the birth of modern neurophysiology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meulders, M., Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. (2010). Giuseppe Moruzzi: Ritratti di uno scienziato = portraits of a scientist. Pisa: ETS. (an Italian – English bilingual book)

Piccolino M. (2007) (edited by) "Neuroscienze Controverse / Da Aristotele alla moderna scienza del linguaggio" Bollati-Boringhieri, Torino.

Piccolino, M., Wade, N.J. (2007) "Insegne ambigue / Percorsi obliqui tra storia, scienza e arte, da Galileo a Magritte". ETS, Pisa.

Piccolino, M. (2005) Lo zufolo e la cicala / Divagazioni galileiane tra la scienza e la sua storia”. Bollati-Boringhieri, Torino.

Piccolino, M. (2003) “Rane, torpedini e scintille / Galvani, Volta e l'elettricità animale”, Bollati- Boringhieri, Torino. (Pozzale-Luigi Russo Award for 2003)

Piccolino, M. (2003) "The taming of the ray / Electric fish research in the Enlightenment, from John Walsh to Alessandro Volta", L. S. Olschki, Firenze.

Bodis-Wollner, I. , and M. Piccolino (1988) Dopaminergic mechanisms in vision. New York: A. R. Liss.

Historical articles and book chapters

Finger, S., Piccolino, M, & Stahnisch, F. (2013) Alexander von Humboldt: Galvanism, Animal Electricity, and Self-Experimentation. Part 2: The Electric Eel, Animal Electricity, and Later Years Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 22, 327-352.

Finger, S., Piccolino, M, & Stahnisch, F. (2013) Alexander von Humboldt: Galvanism, Animal Electricity, and Self-Experimentation. Part 1: Formative Years, Naturphilosophie, and Galvanism

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 22, 225-260.
Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. The frog's dancing master: science, séances, and the transmission of

myths. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 22, 79-95.
Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. (2012). Carlo Matteucci (1811–1868), the “frogs pile”, and the

Risorgimento of electrophysiology. Cortex, 48, 6, 645-646.
Levi-Montalcini, R., Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. (2011). Giuseppe Moruzzi: A tribute to a

“formidable” scientist and a “formidable” man. Brain Research Reviews, 66, 256-269.
Wade, N., Nilius, B., & Piccolino, M. (2011). A quest in neurosciences: neuroportraits.

Archives - European Journal of Physiology, 461, 6, 591-592.

Piccolino, M., Finger, S., & Barbara, J.-G. (2011). Discovering the African Freshwater Torpedo: Legendary Ethiopia, Religious Controversies, and a Catfish Capable of Reanimating Dead Fish. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 20, 3, 210-235.

Koehler, P. J., Finger, S., & Piccolino, M. (2009). The "Eels" of South America: Mid-18th-Century Dutch Contributions to the Theory of Animal Electricity. Journal of the History of Biology, 42, 715--763.

Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. (2008). Galileo’s eye: A new vision of the senses in the work of Galileo Galilei. Perception, 37, 9, 1312-1340.

Piccolino, M., & Wade, N. J. (2008). Galileo Galilei’s vision of the senses. Trends in Neurosciences, 31, 11, 585-590.

Piccolino, M. (2007). Visual Images in Luigi Galvani's Path to Animal Electricity. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17, 335--348.

Piccolino M. (2007) I sensi, l’ambiguità, la conoscenza nell’opera di Galileo Galilæana. Journal of Galilean Studies. 4, 245-278.

Piccolino M. (2006) "The taming of the electric ray : from a wonderful and dreadful “art” to “animal electricity” and electric battery” in "Brain, mind, and medicine: Essays in 18th century neuroscience", H. Whitaker, C.U.M. Smith & S. Finger (edrs), Springer, Berlin.

Piccolino M. (2006). La torpille domptée: d’un «art» merveilleux et terrible à l’«électricité animale». In Monti, M. T. "Écriture et mémoire. Les carnets médico-biologiques de Vallisneri à E. Wolff". (pp. 155-187). Milano: Franco Angeli.

Piccolino M. (2006) Luigi Galvani’s path to animal electricity. Comptes rendus de l'Académie des science de Paris, Biological Sciences. 329: 303–318.

Piccolino M. & Wade N.J (2006) Flagging early ambiguities. II Perception, 35: 1003-1006

Piccolino M. & Wade N.J (2006) Flagging early ambiguities I. Perception. 35: 861-864.

Wade N.J & Piccolino Marco (2006) Nobel stains. Perception, 35: 1-8

Piccolino, M. (2005) From an ambiguous torpedo to animal and physical electricity. Audiological Medicine 3:124-132.

Piccolino, M. (2003) A “lost time” between science and literature: the “temps perdu” from Hermann von Helmholtz to Marcel Proust. Audiological Medicine. 1: 261-270.

Piccolino, M. (2003) Nerves, alcohol and drugs, the Adrian-Kato controversy on nervous conduction: deep insights from a ''wrong'' experiment? Brain Research Reviews. 43: 257-265.

Piccolino, M. (2002) Fifty years of the Hodgkin-Huxley era. Trends in Neurosciences. 25: 552-553. Piccolino, M., Bresadola, (2002) M. Drawing a spark from darkness: John Walsh and electric fish

Trends in Neurosciences 25: 51-57. (also available in Endeavour - 2002 26: 19-26)

Piccolino, M. (2000) Lazzaro Spallanzani e le ricerche sui pesci elettrici nel secolo dei lumi Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Lazzaro Spallanzani. (P. Manzini & P. Tongiorgi, P edrs..) pp. 359-456. Mucchi, Modena (Italy).

Piccolino, M. (2000) : Biological machines: from mills to molecules. Nature Reviews in Molecular and Cell Biology. 1:149-153.

Piccolino, M. (2000) The bicentennial of the Voltaic battery (1800-2000): the artificial electric organ. Trends in Neurosciences. 23:47-51.

Piccolino, M. (1999) Marcello Malpighi and the difficult birth of modern life sciences. Endeavour 23:175-179.

Piccolino, M. (1998) Animal electricity and the birth of electrophysiology: the legacy of Luigi Galvani Brain Research Bulletin. 46:25-52.

Piccolino, M. (1997) Luigi Galvani and animal electricity: two centuries after the foundation of electro-physiology. Trends in Neurosciences. 20:443-448.

Piccolino, M., E. Strettoi, E. Laurenzi (1989) Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the retina and the neuron theory. Documenta Ophtalmologica – Historical Section 71:123-141.

Piccolino, M. (1988) Cajal and the retina: a 100-year retrospective. Trends in Neurosciences. 11:521-525.

Marco Piccolino

Lungarno Gambacorti 36
56125 Pisa (Italy)