Making strides for over 100 years

The history of neurology – the branch of medicine dedicated to nervous system disorders – dates back thousands of years. Ancient Mayans and Greeks created treatments for battle wounds, epilepsy and other conditions with varying degrees of success, and their work paved the way for future developments.

Modern techniques are much more refined than those practised centuries ago (so don’t worry about having a hole drilled in your head), but the search for better treatments, effective cures and greater understanding continues. And much of it is taking place in the Netherlands, which has been advancing neurology for more than 100 years, thanks in part to the way the Dutch value inquisitiveness, innovation and collaboration.

Early advances in the field

Neurology was first explored in the Netherlands in the 1800s and was closely intertwined with psychiatry. Early students studied topics like electrotherapy and “nervous diseases” while physicians like Cornelis Winkler and Jan Anton Guldenarm pioneered operations for brain abscesses and tumours, promoting surgical care over toxic treatments made from substances like arsenic. The country’s first clinic devoted exclusively to neurology opened in 1929. A few years later, Ziedses des Plantes published ground-breaking research on tomosynthesis, an early form of medical imaging.

Cornelis Winkler

Cornelis Winkler, 1910

Though WWII slowed momentum, advancements in neurological study accelerated rapidly after the war and the following years were highly productive. Psychiatry and neurology became less intertwined as well, and in 1973, the Netherlands Society of Neurology divided into two branches. That same decade, Alexander Cools proposed the existence of different types of dopamine receptors and Dick Swaab revealed the impact of biochemical and hormonal factors on the brain in-utero. In recent years, Dutch researchers have also made important advancements in using deep brain stimulation – in which implants are placed in the skull – to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Dick Swaab 1980

Dick Swaab, 1980

Attracting and stimulating research

Though much has been accomplished, the history of neurology in the Netherlands is still being written and the country has created a climate that encourages breakthroughs and developments. In 2018, the VU University Medical Center and AMC merged to create Amsterdam UMC, which combines education, research and patient care. The move has also strengthened collaboration between research institutes and doctors, something Prof Dr Bernard Uitdehaag of Amsterdam UMC believes will further cement Amsterdam’s position as a leader in the field and accelerate medical progress.

Prof Dr Uitdehaag

Prof Dr Bernard Uitdehaag

“Especially after the fusion of the two hospitals, Amsterdam brings together an enormous amount of knowledge in neurology,” Dr Uitdehaag explains. “In the VUMC, we are focusing on four areas within neurology and the AMC is also concentrating on different four areas, but they are complimentary. It stimulates thinking about neurological problems and learning from each other’s work.”

That work is incredibly diverse, according to Uitdehaag. “We have very a good connection with all kinds of research, so there are a lot of research groups [studying things] from the molecular level to genetics to biomarkers to artificial intelligence. There is a lot of interaction going on and that’s very stimulating. We have so many connections and it all comes together in an environment that attracts and stimulates a lot of research.”

From cognitive abnormalities to imaging treatments

As a specialist in treating multiple sclerosis (MS), Uitdehaag is grateful to have seen research translate into renewed hope and life-saving innovations for his patients. “We have a long history in multiple sclerosis,” he explains. “The MS Centre Amsterdam was established in 1998 and we are now amongst the leaders in the world. We do a lot of research across the whole area, from cognitive abnormalities to imaging treatments.”

This work has a profound impact on ordinary people, something Uitdehaag sees almost daily. “30 to 40 years ago, it was young people with a devastating disease and there was no treatment possible,” he says. “So, I stayed in the field and was lucky to be here in Amsterdam where the MS research was done at a very good level. I am still very fascinated by the brain and very lucky to see that we can now treat MS. It might not be perfect, but when I started, there was nothing at all. Now, we have over 13 different treatments.”

Motivated to find a solution

Fortunately for people suffering from neurological conditions, there are many more developments to come in the Netherlands. The research climate is advancing at a speed unimaginable to early pioneers and for doctors like Uitdehaag, there’s also a personal side to things. “You see what the impact of a disease is when you have contact with patients and their family,” he says. “You see the impact not only on the patient themselves but on their parents, children, partner and their whole social system. You see how devastating the disease can be and it motivates you to find a solution.”

Those solutions are coming, and hopefully, sooner rather than later. As the home of Europe’s densest and most innovative life sciences and health community, Amsterdam benefits from a wealth of research institutions, startups and corporates that cooperate and collaborate in pursuit of new breakthroughs. In the years ahead, they will continue making history, giving hope to patients while reaffirming the city’s reputation as a global leader in neurology.