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Feature Neurology

Brain connections

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 14 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1317
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1London
  1. geoff{at}

    Ideas that a map of brain function could be clinically useful fell out of fashion many years ago, but new imaging technology is resurrecting them, as Geoff Watts reports

    A scanning technology still in its infancy may eventually offer a more complete understanding of brain disorders from autism to schizophrenia. If it does, at least part of the credit should go not only to the researchers now developing it but to some of the great neuroanatomists of the 19th century.

    The history of science is an endless saga of competing ideas in which new insights emerge, develop, and flourish—or, as often as not, get replaced by something better. It is unusual for an idea to fade and then, decades later, be resurrected. But this is more or less what’s happened to the ideas of Meynert, Wernicke, and other European anatomists of their era. The obstacle to earlier development was that it took another century to invent the scanning technology required to test them.

    Among the handful of today’s researchers eager to deploy this new technology is Marco Catani of the Centre for Neuroimaging at London’s Institute of Psychiatry. Looking back at the work of his predecessors, he finds himself impressed. Through dissection and observation of postmortem material they came up with the idea that many of the functions of the brain are localised. More than that, they began to fashion a crude wiring diagram. “It was a revolutionary idea,” Dr Catani says, “to go from anatomy to function.”

    Early links

    Some of the earliest detail came from Theodore Meynert, a Viennese professor of psychiatry who died in 1892. Although simple brain functions may be localised in one part of the cortex, higher functions, he insisted, are the product of interactions between different areas of the brain: interactions that require connecting pathways of …

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