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Dr. ‘Aha!’

Vernon Mountcastle ’42 was dubbed the “Jacques Cousteau of the cortex.”

Vernon Mountcastle ’42 lived for what he called “Aha!” experiences. These occurred when he made a neuroscience discovery and reveled in the knowledge that, albeit briefly, he was the only person on the planet who knew what he’d just found out. Mountcastle had many such experiences in his six decades as Johns Hopkins’—indeed, the world’s—premier explorer of the previously unfathomed depths of the brain’s activity. The acknowledged father of neuroscience, he was dubbed by one of his many proteges as “the Jacques Cousteau of the cortex.”

Mountcastle died in his northern Baltimore home on Jan. 11 of flu complications. He was 96.

In 1957, Mountcastle published a paper detailing his most famous discovery: the “columnar” organization of the brain’s cells. Studying the brains of cats, he found that cerebral cortex cells are organized in vertical columns, with the cells linked to various brain functions extending from the surface of the brain down through six layers of the cortex. His discovery revolutionized the concept of how the brain is built.

Two decades later, other “Aha!” moments occurred when Mountcastle studied the cortex’s parietal lobe, the region involved in such higher functions as the perception of sensory information and physical reaction to it. Using a “waking monkey technique” that took him five years to perfect, Mountcastle figured out how to record the activity of an alert monkey’s brain as the animal reacted to such stimuli as moving light beams.

Mountcastle received almost every major scientific prize except the Nobel, including the 1983 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award as “the intellectual progenitor of his field,” the National Medal of Science in 1986 and the National Academy of Sciences Award in the Neurosciences in 1998.

Acclaimed Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon Snyder, a longtime protégé—and tennis opponent—of Mountcastle, says: “The more and more we know of individual genes that regulate brain function, the more and more it becomes clear that molecular biology is just the beginning—and we need to return to the lessons of Vernon Mountcastle to put it all together.” 

Dr. ‘Aha!’