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Illustration from 1881 resolves century-old brain controversy

Figure2_WernickeThese days, a person can get through graduate school in the sciences practically without touching a physical publication. Most journals are available online going back decades. So it was a bit unusual when graduate student Jason Yeatman and postdoctoral scholar Kevin Weiner found themselves in the basement of Lane Medical Library trying to get to the bottom of a medical mystery.

It all started when Yeatman found a nerve pathway in brain images he'd taken as part of his work studying brain changes as kids learn to read.  This pathway didn't appear anywhere in the available literature. He and Weiner became curious how this pathway - which clearly showed up in their work - could have escaped the notice of previous neuroscientists.

Their curiosity eventually led them back to an 1881 publication, still available in the basement of Lane Medical Library, where Carl Wernicke, MD, described identifying this brain pathway. Weier said, "That was a really cool experience that most people don’t have anymore, when you have to check your belongings at the door because the book you are about to look at is worth thousands of dollars per page. You are literally smelling 100 year-old ink as you find the images you have been searching for.”

Wernicke's discovery contradicted theories by the eminent neuroanatomist at the time, Theodor Meynert, MD. I describe the controversy that led to this pathway expulsion from the literature in this Stanford News story:

Meynert strongly believed that all of the brain’s association pathways run from front to back – horizontal. This pathway, which Wernicke had called the vertical occipital fasciculus, or VOF, ran vertically. Although Yeatman and Weiner found references to the VOF under a variety of different names in texts published for about 30 years after Wernicke’s original discovery, Meynert never accepted the VOF and references to it became contentious before eventually disappearing entirely from the literature.

The group, whose work was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says this was all more than just an exercise in curiosity. Psychologist Brian Wandell, PhD, in whose lab Yeatman was working, says it also shows the value of modern publishing methods, where making data available means scientists worldwide can try to reproduce results. He says it's now less likely that a dispute could lead to a discovery being lost to history.

Image courtesy of PNAS

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