Historical setting and neuropathology of lathyrism: Insights from the neglected 1944 report by Oliveras de la Riva

Santiago Giménez-Roldán, F. Morales-Asín, Isidre Ferrer, Peter S. Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Lathyrism is a central motor system disorder recognized since antiquity resulting from prolonged dietary dependence on the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus). The neuropathology underlying the characteristic spastic paraparesis of lathyrism is sketchy. Described here is a landmark but little-known Spanish-language neuropathological study of two patients with lathyrism of recent onset. Due to erroneous interpretations of Filimonov’s influential work in 1926, it was assumed that spastic paraparesis of lathyrism was explained by destruction of Betz’s pyramidal cells in the motor cortex. Contrary to present understanding, Betz cells and anterior horn cells were preserved, and pathological findings dominated by myelin loss were largely limited to pyramidal tracts in the lumbar cord. Thickening of the adventitia of capillaries and arterioles, together with proliferation of perivascular astrocytes, was found along the length of the spinal cord. Oliveras de la Riva proposed that the segmental spinal pathology arose because distal regions of elongate pyramidal tract axons are distant from their trophic center in the motor cortex, a view not far from the current distal axonopathy concept of lathyrism. In addition, we review the historical circumstances of Filimonov’s work in Russia, a summary of the epidemic of lathyrism in Spain following its Civil War (1936–1939), and some historical aspects of the Cajal Institute in Madrid, where Oliveras de la Riva’s work was carried out under the supervision of Fernando de Castro, one of Cajal’s favorite students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)361-386
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of the History of the Neurosciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2 2019


  • Betz cells
  • Filimonov
  • Oliveras de la Riva; De Castro
  • history
  • lathyrism
  • neuropathology
  • spinal blood vessels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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