Pioneering Neuroscientist Dies

Vernon Mountcastle, who mapped the functional landscape of the neocortex, passed away at age 96.

Jan 19, 2015
Kerry Grens

JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINEVernon Mountcastle, the Johns Hopkins neuroscientist whose work described the columns of neurons that create a functional organization in the cortex of the mammalian brain, died this month (January 11) from complications of the flu. He was 96.

“He was one of the great giants in neuroscience research,” Mountcastle’s colleague at Hopkins, Solomon Snyder, told The Washington Post.

Mountcastle was trained as a neurosurgeon, and opted for research on the basics of neuronal functioning. In the 1950s, he was recording neurons in the cat neocortex when he recognized a pattern: those neurons that responded similarly to a stimulus—say, a particular type of touch—were stacked on top of one another. According to the Post, “Dr. Mountcastle’s 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.”

Yet, his conclusions were independently confirmed. In later work, Mountcastle showed that such modules of neural specificity communicate with one another. “He was the first one to really articulate this whole notion of distributed functions, that in order to act in the world, there are a number of modules that work together,” John Morrison, dean of basic sciences in the graduate school of biomedical sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told The New York Times.

Mountcastle is survived by his wife, two children, a sister, and several grandchildren.