'Elementary units of cortical activity': the rise and fall of the cortical column

Vision Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, UK
c.u.m.smith AT aston.ac.uk

The roots of the concept of cortical columns stretch far back into the history of neuroscience. The impulse to compartmentalise the cortex into functional units can be seen at work in the phrenology of the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the next century Korbinian Brodmann and several others published treatises on cortical architectonics. Later, in the middle of that century, Lorente de No writes of chains of ‘reverberatory’ neurons orthogonal to the pial surface of the cortex and called them ‘elementary units of cortical activity’. This is the first hint that a columnar organisation might exist. With the advent of microelectrode recording first Vernon Mountcastle (1957) and then David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel provided evidence consistent with the idea that columns might constitute units of physiological activity. This idea was backed up in the 1970s by clever histochemical techniques and culminated in Hubel and Wiesel’s well-known ‘ice-cube’ model of the cortex and Szentogathai’s brilliant iconography. The cortical column can thus be seen as the terminus ad quem of several great lines of neuroscientific research: currents originating in phrenology and passing through cytoarchitectonics; currents originating in neurocytology and passing through Lorente de No. Famously, Huxley noted the tragedy of a beautiful hypothesis destroyed by an ugly fact. Famously, too, human visual perception is orientated toward seeing edges and demarcations when, perhaps, they are not there. Recently the concept of cortical columns has come in for the same radical criticism that undermined the architectonics of the early part of the twentieth century. Does history repeat itself? This paper reviews this history and asks the question.

Session VI.  Structures
Thursday, 21 June 2007, 3:00 - 3:30 pm

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007