Pio del Rio Hortega and the discovery of the oligodendrocytes
Pérez Cerdá, Fernando
Sánchez Gómez, María Victoria
Matute Almau, Carlos José
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Frontiers in neuroanatomy 7 : (2015) // Article ID 92
Rio del Rio Hortega (1882-1945) discovered microglia and oligodendrocytes (OLGs), and after Ramon y Cajal, was the most prominent figure of the Spanish school of neurology. He began his scientific career with Nicolas Achucarro from whom he learned the use of metallic impregnation techniques suitable to study non-neuronal cells. Later on, he joined Cajal's laboratory. and Subsequently, he created his own group, where he continued to develop other innovative modifications of silver staining methods that revolutionized the study of glial cells a century ago. He was also interested in neuropathology and became a leading authority on Central Nervous System (CNS) tumors. In parallel to this clinical activity, del Rio Hortega rendered the first systematic description of a major polymorphism present in a subtype of macroglial cells that he named as oligodendroglia and later OLGs. He established their ectodermal origin and suggested that they built the myelin sheath of CNS axons, just as Schwann cells did in the periphery. Notably, he also suggested the trophic role of OLGs for neuronal functionality, an idea that has been substantiated in the last few years. Del Rio Hortega became internationally recognized and established an important neurohistological school with outstanding pupils from Spain and abroad, which nearly disappeared after his exile due to the Spanish civil war. Yet, the difficulty of metal impregnation methods and their variability in results, delayed for some decades the confirmation of his great insights into oligodendrocyte biology until the development of electron microscopy and immunohistochemistry. This review aims at summarizing the pioneer and essential contributions of del Rio Hortega to the current knowledge of oligodendrocyte structure and function, and to provide a hint of the scientific personality of this extraordinary and insufficiently recognized man.