A node, or primitive knot, is an enlarged group of cells located in the anterior portion of the primitive streak in a developing gastrula. The node is the site where gastrulation, the formation of the three germ layers, first begins. The node determines and patterns the anterior-posterior axis of the embryo by directing the development of the chordamesoderm. The chordamesoderm is a specific type of mesoderm that will differentiate into the notochord, somites, and neural tube. Those structures will later form the vertebral column. In the chick embryo, the node is referred to as Hensen's node because of its discoverer, Viktor Hensen, who first described the node in 1875. The discovery of Hensen's node has helped to answer questions of axis formation and has allowed experimental embryologists to further investigate vertebrate embryonic development.
The syncytial theory of neural development was proposed by Victor Hensen in 1864 to explain the growth and differentiation of the nervous system. This theory has since been discredited, although it held a significant following at the turn of the twentieth century. Neural development was well studied but poorly understood, so Hensen proposed a simple model of development. The syncytial theory predicted that the nervous system was composed of many neurons with shared cytoplasm. These nerves were thought to be present in the embryo from a very early stage and were selected by the function of the target tissue. There were two competing theories to the syncytial theory. Theodor Schwann and Francis Maitland Balfour proposed the sheath cell theory, which states that nerve fibers were the product of secretions by chains of sheath cells. Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Wilhelm His proposed the outgrowth theory of fiber development for individual neurons. The most substantial evidence against the syncytial theory of neural development was produced by Ross Granville Harrison in his studies of the development of nerve fibers.