By Adrian Sparrow
Hans Berger is lauded as the father of EEGs, but his first dream was to become an astronomer. After one semester at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena as a mathematics student, Berger left and served in the army for 1 year. After sustaining an injury from falling off his horse, he received a telegram from his faraway sister, who suddenly felt as though he were in bad condition. Berger considered this incident as telepathic communication, having been miles away from his sister at the time, and was inspired to study the physiological basis of psychic events. He returned to the University of Jena and graduated in 1897 with a degree of Doctor of Medicine.
Berger studied neurology, brain circulation, psychophysiology and brain temperature. Following the work of Richard Caton, who worked with animals to determine brain activity, Berger made the first EEG recording of human brain activity in 1924, a procedure he called ‘Elektrenkephalogramm’.
Berger recorded intracerebral brain activity in patients with skull defects by placing the electrode in the periosteum, inserting silver wires under the scalp- one at the front of the head and one at the back. It wasn’t until 1927 that he could take readings from an intact skull with more sensitive equipment and developed a non-invasive recording technique, using silver foil electrodes attached to the head by a rubber bandage. He was the first to record electrical activity of the human brain, and promoted transferring the brain recording technique from animals to humans, a process that Polish physiologist Adolf Beck used on frogs, and English physiologist Richard Caton had utilized on rabbits and monkeys. His children, Klaus and Ilse, were often Berger’s test subjects.
Berger was the first to describe the different brainwaves present in both normal and abnormal brains, such as the alpha wave rhythm, also known as “Berger’s wave”, and the faster beta waves.
Berger was the first to describe “the nature of EEG alterations in brain diseases such as epilepsy”(3). He “came to the conclusion that the discovery of the EEG was not only a breakthrough in neurophysiology but also that this technology was of outstanding importance for its diagnostic value”(2). The importance of his discoveries were recognized at an international forum in 1937, and by 1938, electroencephalography had gained widespread recognition by researchers in the field, leading to practical diagnostic use in the US, England, and France. Berger was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1940 but was unable to accept due to the conflict of the Second World War.
Today, the EEG is an important method used for diagnosing diseases in many fields, including neurology and psychiatry.