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Neuroimage. 2003 Nov;20 Suppl 1:S2-7.

Cerebral localization, then and now.

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University Department of Clinical Neurology, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, UK.


We review some of the progress made in understanding the nature of functional specialization in the human brain, beginning with the anatomical claim that all mental faculties have their own distinct material substrate in different regions of the brain and the psychological claim that each mental faculty is characterized by the content domain with which it deals. This conceptual framework led behavioral neurologists to show how discrete brain lesions provoked different types of language, praxic, gnostic, spatial, and memory disorders. The simplest way of interpreting these anatomoclinical associations was to conjecture that the normal function (now impaired by brain damage) was localized within that lesioned region. It was also realized that cognitive impairments could arise from lesions that spared the functional centers themselves but disconnected them from other centers. Nonetheless, many neuroscientists remained skeptical of the entire paradigm. Accordingly, in the late 19th century functional localization began to be studied in the intact human brain by such techniques as measuring the temperature of different brain regions when different cognitive tasks were performed. During the 20th century these crude techniques gave way to positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and magnetoencephalography. The relatively precise spatial and temporal resolution of modern methods now raises a crucial question: Do the functional localizations obtained by the anatomoclinical method converge with those implied by the functional neuroimaging of cognition in healthy volunteers? We then conclude with some recent suggestions that functional specialization is not such a fixed property of brain regions as previously supposed.

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