Neuroscience pioneer Vernon Mountcastle mapped brain structure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2015, 8:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Vernon Mountcastle

Vernon Mountcastle, the first person to understand and describe how the cells in the higher regions of the brain are organised and who was once dubbed "the Jacques Cousteau of the cortex", died a week ago at his home in Baltimore. He was 96.

Widely considered the father of neuroscience, Mountcastle never forgot the eureka moment in 1955 that launched his ascendancy in the field. His discovery of how neurons in the upper cortex are organised into columns had everything to do with how he was recording test results one day on a yellow piece of paper — vertically and in list form.

Suddenly he saw in front of him a visual metaphor for how cells are layered in the brain, with skin cells stacked on top of skin cells, motor cells on top of motor cells, and so on. This contradicted the accepted science of the day, that brain cells were organised in layers by function.

His theory was so controversial that when the paper describing the results of the experiment came out in 1957, he was the sole author. Two other researchers declined to have their names attached to the article lest it hurt their careers, he once wrote.

Building on Mountcastle's work, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who both worked closely with the Hopkins scientist early in their careers, shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Roger Sperry) for their discovery of how neurons in the retina assemble information about the visual world.

Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, on July 15, 1918, and was the middle of five children. He graduated from Roanoke College in 1938 and received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1942. Until Mountcastle's generation, no one in his family had received a college education.

After serving in the second world war as a battlefield surgeon, Mountcastle was told he would have to wait a year for a neurosurgeon slot at Johns Hopkins. Asked his was willing to work in the physiology lab until then, Mountcastle agreed, setting him on his life's course. "I found no greater thrill in life than to make an original discovery, no matter how small," he once said.

Colleague and neuroscientist Solomon Snyder said: "He was an extraordinarily powerful intellect, able to incorporate into his work insights in the brain drawn from many different areas. He was one of the great giants in neuroscience research."