Brain maps and functions

Brain map

He first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a growth of interest in the localization of functions in the brain. Undoubtedly, Franz Joseph Gall's theory of phrenology, was influential in bringing the attention of the scientific establishment to this possibility, despite the fact that his phrenological theory was based on failed inference, not on the scientific method. This interest started with a curious episode: the French Academy of Sciences was pressured by Napoleon Bonaparte, who was apparently furious with Gall (who had moved succesfully to Paris, after being expelled from Vienna by religious and political authorities), to establish a scientific committee to study Gall's application to be admitted to the Academy. Gall, very wisely, submitted his stupendous research on the anatomy of the brain, which was really world-class, instead of the more controversial work on the cerebral "organs" of mind. The Academy asked to the leading brain physiologist of the time, Pierre Flourens, to carry out experiments in animals in order to ascertain whether Gall's phrenological assertions were true, despite the fact that he had not put this to test. He was denied entrance to the rolls of the Academy, of course, but Flourens liked the idea and started an experimental research line of his own.

So, beginning with the pioneering experiments of Flourens, around 1825, the first discoveries related to this question came only when he and other anatomists and physiologists developed new experimental methods to intervene directly into the brain, and to see the results of these interventions on the behavior of animals. These methods were:

  1. Selective surgical ablation of parts of the brain of animals;
  2. Faradic and galvanic (i.e., steady or pulsed electrical) stimulation of the brain of animals and humans;
  3. Clinical studies, i.e., patients with neurological or mental deficits had their brain studied after their death, in an attempt to correlate them with detectable alterations in the brain tissue.

Pierre Flourens

Flourens started by using localized lesions of the brain in rabbits and pigeons. He was able to demonstrate convincingly for the first time that the main divisions of the brain were responsible for largely different functions. By removing the cerebral hemispheres, for instance, all perceptions, motricity, and judgment were abolished. The removal of the cerebellum affected the animal's equilibrium and motor coordination, while the destruction of the brain stem (medulla oblongata) caused death. These experiments led to the conclusion that the cerebral hemispheres are responsible for higher cognitive functions, that the cerebellum regulates and integrates movements, and that the medulla controls vital functions, such as circulation, respiration and general bodily stability. On the other hand, he was unable (probably because his experimental subjects have relatively primitive cortices) to find specific regions for memory and cognition, which led him to believe that they are represented in a diffuse form around the brain. So, different functions could indeed be ascribed to particular regions of the brain, but that a finer localization was lacking.

A pigeon which had its brain
lesioned in an experiment
by Flourens

For the next 30 years, this was the predominant view, until a series of clinical discoveries in France and Germany, related to the pathology of language, provided a clue that higher mental functions had, indeed, a specific localization in the cortex. In addition, new experiments with more precise electrical stimulation of the cortex surface in primates and dogs, in England and Germany, provided a stronger case for strict localizationism of function.

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