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Aristides Leão

Aristides de Azevedo Pacheco Leão (b. August 3, 1914; d. December 14, 1993, Rio de Janeiro) was one of the most noted Brazilian biologists and scientists, one of the founders of the Biophysics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the discoverer of spreading depression, an electrophysiological phenomenon of the central nervous system, which received his name.

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Leão was born to an intellectual family in Rio de Janeiro. He started to study medicine at the University of São Paulo, but had to interrupt it, due to a bout with tuberculosis. Under the influence of his uncle, Antonio Pacheco Leão, who was the director of the Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro, he decided instead to follow a research career and went to the USA to study further and to obtain a masters (1942) and a doctorate (1943) in physiology at the Harvard Medical School, with an experimental investigation on epilepsy in the cerebral cortex of rabbits. In collaboration with his supervisors, Arturo Rosenblueth and Hallowell Davis, he analyzed the cycle of excitability of cortex neurons (nerve cells) after the convulsive phenomena, and was the first to identify an important phenomenon, that of a decrease of the excitability which spread in increasing circles around the initial focus, which he named spreading depression. The phenomenon was soon named as Leão's wave and brought great attention after his work was published in 1944 in one of the main neurophysiology journals (for the rest of his life, Dr. Leão became one of the most cited neuroscientists in the world, and his original paper is considered one of the classics in the field).

Upon returning to Brazil, he continued his experiments with spreading depression, in the department of physiology of the medical school of the University of Brazil (presently the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Already in 1947 he could publish his first international paper on a research developed entirely in his new Brazilian lab, which was put together with great difficulty due to the lack of resources and specialized equipment, Some of his lifelong colleagues, such as Dr. Hiss Martins Ferreira joined him at that time. He was responsible in the succeeding years to add a great number of students to his group, such as and Drs. Romualdo José do Carmo, Gilberto de Oliveira Castro and others.

Together with Prof. Carlos Chagas Filho (1910-1922), another influential neurophysiologist and biophysicist, Dr. Leão founded the Laboratory of Biophysics, which later became the world-famous Institute of Biophysics, a great cradle of two generations of Brazilian scientists and a center of excellence in neurophysiological research.

Dr. Leão was also an important and influential scientific leader. He was for 15 years the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and a member of the scientific council of the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq) for many years.

He is described as a gentle, calm and systematic man, with outstanding wit and culture, very much respected and loved by his colleagues and students. He was also an accomplished amateur naturalist and devoted ornithologist, specialized in tropical birds. He died of respiratory failure at 79 years of age, in Rio de Janeiro.


  • Leão AAP. Spreading depression of activity in the cerebral cortex. J Neurophysiol 7: 359–390, 1944 Full paper.
  • Leão AAP. Pial circulation and spreading depression of activity in the cerebral cortex. J Neurophysiol 7: 391–396, 1944 Full paper.
  • Leão AAP. Further observations on the spreading depression of activity in the cerebral cortex. J Neurophysiol 10: 409–414, 1947 Full paper.
  • Somjem, G.G. Aristides Leão’s discovery of cortical spreading depression. J Neurophysiol 94: 2-4, 2005. Full paper
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Aristides_Leão". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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