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Jean-Martin Charcot and Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 8/7/2009

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was an outstanding French neurologist, and a scientist whose studies had a powerful influence on the countless numbers of researchers who followed him. He made important contributions to the study of multiple sclerosis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

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    Jean-Martin Charcot

    Jean-Martin Charcot was a widely respected and influential scientist and teacher. He was a professor at the University of Paris from 1860-1893, and he had a long association with the Salpêtrière Hospital, also in Paris, ultimately becoming its director. He is considered by some to be the father of modern neurology, and in 1882 he founded a neurological clinic at Salpêtrière.

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    Jean-Martin Charcot Achievements

    His major achievements include determining specific functional areas of the brain. He declared that the brain was not a homogenous organ, but a series of regions with their own specialised functions. He discovered amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disorder. It also now goes by the name of Charcot's disease. In 1968, whilst Professor of Neurology at the University of Paris he made the first description of multiple sclerosis (MS).

    Further contributions to science include;

    • Describing many neurological disorders in addition to the above - Charcot Foot, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth-Disease, which is a disease associated with a slow progressive weakness of the muscles in the lower legs, feet, and hands.
    • Matched anatomical lesions to disorders - including epilepsy and strokes.
    • He is associated with many medical eponyms including: Charcot's edema, Charcot's fever, Charcot's joints, Charcot's zone, and Charcot-Weiss-Baker syndrome.

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    Jean-Martin Charcot and Hysteria

    Jean Martin-Charcot is of interest to students of psychology because of his work on hysteria. He was convinced that it was a neurological disorder caused by hereditary factors and that the physical symptoms of this mental illness were expressed after an environmental trigger such as an accident. This went against the grain at the time as many contemporary physicians believed that hysterical patients were frauds, and that the symptoms they presented such as delirium, inability to speak, and loss of feeling were put on.

    To prove his hypothesis Charcot would hypnotize patients to induce a state of hysteria and study the symptoms, and although modern science believes that his methods and conclusions were flawed he did establish a link between physiological and mental processes. His contention that hysteria was caused by hereditary predisposition that could be triggered by specific environmental stressors demonstrates a phenomena that is widely accepted today, namely an interaction between genetics and the environment as the cause of some diseases.

    In addition to his own studies Jean-Marie Charcot had an outstanding influence on many of his students include Alfred Binet, who devised the first usable IQ test and Sigmund Freud.