Golgi Staining Technique

By Erica O'Neil, Sarah Taddeo
Published: 2017-03-06
Keywords: staining
Golgi Staining Technique

The Golgi staining technique, also called the black reaction after the stain's color, was developed in the 1870s and 1880s in Italy to make brain cells (neurons) visible under the microscope. Camillo Golgi developed the technique while working with nervous tissue, which required Golgi to examine cell structure under the microscope. Golgi improved upon existing methods of staining, enabling scientists to view entire neurons for the first time and changing the way people discussed the development and composition of the brain's cells. Into the twenty-fist century, Golgi's staining method continued to inform research on the nervous system, particularly regarding embryonic development.

Golgi began publishing research about the nervous system and its cellular structure between 1870 and 1872, while working in the laboratory of Giulio Bizzozero at the Institute of General Pathology at the University of Pavia in Pavia, Italy. Afterward, Golgi became chief doctor at the Pio Luogo degli Incurabili (Hospital for the Chronically Sick) in Abbiategrasso, Italy. He built a laboratory in the kitchen of the hospital, where he developed a new technique to stain neural tissues. The staining method of his time involved staining an organic tissue with red carmine or black hematoxylin and exposing it to a reagent, like potassium dichromate or chromic acid, that hardened the individual neurons. Scientists then isolated individual cells by separating them under a microscope with needles. Because neurons have a different shape from other cells of the body, scientists often broke the projections off of the cell when trying to separate them. Those projections included web-like dendrites that receive neural impulses and relay them to the cell body, and the long axon on the other side of the cell body that relays those impulses.

Golgi's early attempts to improve staining involved infusing cells with various metals to view whole neurons and other kinds of tissues in greater detail. After experimenting with exposing cells to gold and mercury, Golgi used silver nitrate. The silver nitrate stain enabled him to see the neurons in their entirety, turning them black against a pale yellow background. The black color of the stained neurons led him to name his technique la reazione nera (the black reaction). The staining process dyed five to ten percent of cells per sample, enabling Golgi to see individual cell structures amid tangled masses of nervous tissue.

The mechanisms of the Golgi staining technique were similar to those of his contemporaries. First, to harden the soft neural tissue, Golgi submersed samples for up to forty-five days in a 2.5 percent potassium dichromate solution. Next, he soaked the samples in a 0.5 to 1 percent silver nitrate solution for different amounts of time to dye some of the cells black. Golgi then dehydrated the samples with alcohol and sliced them at 100 micron intervals, the equivalent of the thickness of a piece of paper, wide enough to keep one neuron intact. Golgi then rinsed the tissue in turpentine and attached it to a slide with clear gum damar to preserve it. At that point, he viewed a sample under a microscope.

Golgi published the results of his staining procedure in a 1873 paper titled "Sulla Struttura della Sostanza Grigia del Cervello" (On the Structure of the Gray Brain Matter). In Germany, Franz Boll published notes of Golgi's work in German journals, which spread news of Golgi's work. Golgi continued to use his staining technique to examine neural tissues, and later accumulated his finding in Sulla Fina Anatomia degli Organi Centrali del Sistema Nervoso (On the Fine Anatomy of the Central Organs of the Nervous System) published in 1885. That year, Eugen Bleuler, a psychiatrist in Switzerland, used Golgi's staining method and presented specimens of rabbit's cerebral cortex to the Medical Society of Zürich.

In the 1880s, Albert von Kölliker, a physiologist in Switzerland, studied the development of the brain, neuro-sensory pathways, and internal organ development in mammals using the Golgi staining technique. He learned the technique under the instruction of Golgi in 1887, and he published "Ueber Golgi's Untersuchungen, den Feineren Bau des Centralen Nervensystems Betreffend" (About Golgi's Studies Concerning the Finer Structure of the Central Nervous System) later that year. Kölliker lauded Golgi's staining technique, leading more scientists to adopt it.

In 1887, Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Spain altered the technique by introducing silver nitrate to the tissue in two shorter soaks, rather than one long soak. That alteration improved the color and detail of the stain. Researchers like Golgi and Ramón y Cajal used results from such staining studies to help develop the neuron doctrine, which stated that neurons were individual cells that transmitted electrical impulses to and from each other. That theory transformed theories of the nervous system's structure and functionality. Scientists confirmed the theory by using the Golgi staining technique to show the gaps, or synapses, between neurons. Golgi and Ramón y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to in 1906.

In 1917, Pío del Río Hortega further adapted Golgi's method by fixing tissues with formalin, chloral hydrate, and potassium chromate, which decreased the time necessary to complete the staining. Into the twenty-first century, researchers used del Río Hortega's method to dye non-neuronal brain cells like neuroglia and cells of the cerebellum. After a lull in popularity between the World Wars, the Golgi staining technique regained popularity in the late 1930s with the introduction of the electron microscope.

Scientists used Golgi's staining technique to better explain the formation of neurons, the brain, and sensory pathways. Golgi staining also helped scientists classify organelles within cells, including muscle cell organelles which store and transport calcium, called the sarcoplasmic reticulum, and the protein-modifying organelles in cells called the Golgi apparatus. The Golgi staining technique remained a primary method of staining into the twenty-first century.


  1. Barker, Lewellys Franklin. The Nervous System and Its Constituent Neurones: Designed for the Use of Practitioners of Medicine and of Students of Medicine and Psychology. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1901. https://archive.org/details/nervoussystemits00barkuoft (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  2. Bentivoglio, Marina. "Life and Discoveries of Camillo Golgi." Nobelprize.org http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1906/golgi-article.html (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  3. Bleuler, Eugen. "Über die Färbung der Ganglienzellen des Gehirns durch die Methode von Golgi." [On the Coloration of Ganglion Cells of the Brain by the Method of Golgi]. Correspondenz-Blatt für Schweizer Aerzte [Proceedings of Swiss Physicians] 16: 155. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32436001035177;view=1up;seq=171 (Accessed February 28, 2017).
  4. Boll, Franz C. "C. Golgi, Sulla strutturea della sostanza grigia del cervello. Comunicazione preventiva." [C. Golgi. On the Structure of the Grey Matter of the Brain. First Communication]. Centralblatt für die Medicinischen Wissenschaften [Central Journal for Medical Science]. 11 (1873): 806–07. https://archive.org/stream/centralblattfrd17unkngoog#page/n810/mode/2up (Accessed February 28, 2017).
  5. Del Río-Hortega, Pío. "Notas técnicas. Noticia de un nuevo y fácil método para la coloración de la neuroglia y del tejido conjuntivo." [Technical notes. News of a new and easy method for coloring glia and connective tissue]. Trabajos del Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas [ Reports from the Laboratory for Biological Research]. 15 (1917): 367–78.
  6. Golgi, Camillo. "Sulla Struttura della Sostanza Grigia del Cervello." [On the Structure of the Grey Matter of the Brain]. Gazzetta Medica Italiana-Lombardia 33 (1873): 244–6. https://books.google.com/books?id=cydbAAAAcAAJ (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  7. Golgi, Camillo. "On the Structure of the Grey Matter of the Brain." In Golgi Centennial Symposium: Perspectives in Neurobiology, ed. and transl. M. Santini, 647–50. New York: Raven, 1975.
  8. Golgi, Camillo. Sulla Fina Anatomia degli Organi Centrali del Sistema Nervoso. [On the Fine Anatomy of the Central Organs of the Nervous System]. Reggio Emilia: Tipografia di Stefano Calderini e Figlio, 1885. https://archive.org/details/b21978724 (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  9. von Kölliker, Albert. "Ueber Golgi's Untersuchungen, den feineren Bau des centralen Nervensystems betreffend." [About Golgi's Studies Concerning the Finer Structure of the Central Nervous System]. Sitzungs-Berichte der Physikalisch-medicinischen Gesellschaft zur Würsburg [Proceedings of the Physico-Medical Society of Würsburg]. (1887) 1–7.
  10. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1906". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1906/ (Accessed December 30, 2015).
  11. Pannese, Ennio. "The Black Reaction." Brain Research Bulletin 41 (1996): 343–9.
  12. Pennese, Ennio. "The Contributions of Camillo Golgi to our Understanding of the Structure of the Nervous System." Archives Italiennes de Biologie (2007): 111–15. http://www.architalbiol.org/aib/article/view/145111/782 (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  13. Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. Manual de Histología normal y Técnica micrográfica. (Manual of Normal Histology and Micrographic Technique). Valencia : Libreria de Pascual Aguilar, 1889. https://archive.org/details/b20392941 (Accessed March 5, 2017).
  14. Rao, B.S. Shankaranarayana, and Trichur R. Raju. "The Golgi Technique for Staining Neurons." In Brain and Behavior, eds. Trichur R. Raju, Bindu M. Kutty, Talakad N. Sathyaprabha, and B.S. Shankaranarayana Rao, 108–11. Bangalore: National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, 2004.
  15. Stirling, William. "Rudolph Albert von Kölliker, M.D., Professor of Anatomy in the University of Würzburg." In Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution Showing the Operations, Expenditures and Condition of the Institution for the Year Ending June 30, 1905, 557–62. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905. https://archive.org/details/annualreportofbo1905smitfo (Accessed December 20, 2015).
  16. Verkhratsky, Alexei, Vladimir Parpura, and José J. Rodríguez. "Where the Thoughts Dwell: The Physiology of Neuronal–Glial 'Diffuse Neural Net'." Brain Research Reviews 66 (2011): 133–51.

How to cite

O'Neil, Erica,, Taddeo, Sarah, "Golgi Staining Technique". Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2017-03-06). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/11436.

Show full item record


Arizona State University. School of Life Sciences. Center for Biology and Society. Embryo Project Encyclopedia.


Copyright Arizona Board of Regents Licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

Last modified

Monday, March 6, 2017 - 18:32


Technologies, Processes


Neurons; Golgi, Camillo, 1843-1926; Stains and staining (Microscopy); Neurons; Microscope slides; Microscopy; Bizzozero, Giulio, 1846-1901; Boll, Franz, 1867-1924; Kolliker, Albert, 1817-1905; Ramon y Cajal, Santiago, 1852-1934; Pio del Rio Hortega; Technology