At the time, scientists could not accurately explain why Forster was able to move after death in the presence of electric currents. Electricity cannot be conducted through air or liquid – only ions. What actually happens is that the nerve signal, or action potential, is a coordinated movement of sodium and potassium ions across the nerve cell membrane. The cell is inherently negative with a resting membrane potential at -70mV so the positively charged sodium and potassium ions undergo coupled transport with the concentration gradient. Electrical chemicals cause the sodium channels to open and depolarize the cell, thus creating an action potential. Essentially, the cells in Forster’s body acted as the electric field for the ions to pass through (“Membrane Transport Mechanisms”).
Below is a video explaining the action potential and how a neuron fires a signal to the muscle.
All the brain’s voluntary movement are controlled by a specific part of the brain called the motor cortex. The only way for a muscle to move is for the brain to send impulses through motor neurons. The muscles receive the “information” on a thin part of a nerve cell called an axon. Once the information reaches the end of the axon and to the muscle, chemicals are released, and the muscle is able to move. When the impulses from the nerves stop, the muscle fibers relax, and the neurons go back to their resting potentials (Sanmita Inc).
Galvani was not completely wrong when he proposed the animals were able to produce their own electricity. Instead of getting our “electricity” from an outside power source or a capacitor (like the Leyden jar), we generate the electrical impulses though the ions in our body. The ions allow for impulses, so the muscles can receive information from the brain to move. Because Forster was dead, the only way his muscles moved was because Aldini used a battery as an outside source and Forster’s corpse merely acted as the conduit for the current to go through. As Volta discovered, the metal currents are able to transfer electricity and power on their own without an animal, thus rendering the theory of animal electricity false.
Below is a video of twitching frog legs. This is able to occur because the salt increases the electrical conductivity and discharges electrical potential so the muscles twitch. The same muscle movement can be induced by attaching the legs to a battery.
Throughout the novel, Victor falls into many convulsive states. We can interpret these series of convulsions as epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Society, seizures tend to be genetic or can arise from brain injury. When Victor falls into a convulsive state, the nerve cells in his brains (neurons) are not able to pass electrical signals effectively.
Top image: “Sciatic Nerve” from Memorie Sulla Elettricità Animale by Luigi Galvani (Wellcome) displays a set of frog legs, which represent Galvani’s experiments and theory of animal electricity.
“Frog Legs Dancing with a Little Salt.” Youtube, Thearchipelagos, 2 June 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YZJt_Bw3eo.
“Membrane Transport Mechanisms.” Summary of Membrane Transport, courses.washington.edu/conj/bess/transport/summary/membrane-transport.html.
Sanmita Inc. “How Does Your Body Move? Does the Brain Send It Messages?” Cornell Center for Materials Research, 28 Nov. 2015, www.ccmr.cornell.edu/faqs/how-does-your-body-move-does-the-brain-send-it-messages/.
Udacity. The Action Potential – Intro to Pyschology. Youtube, 23 Feb. 2015, youtu.be/p8IpaNcfy1Y.
“Why Do Seizures Happen?” Epilepsy Society, 6 Feb. 2017, www.epilepsysociety.org.uk/why-do-seizures-happen#.WuDDwVOUsiM.