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Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle (born July 15, 1918 in Shelbyville, Kentucky) is Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. He discovered and characterized the columnar organization of the cerebral cortex in the 1950s. This discovery was a turning point in investigations of the cerebral cortex, as nearly all cortical studies of sensory function after Mountcastle's 1957 paper[1] on the somatosensory cortex used columnar organization as their basis.

Life and WorkEdit

Mountcastle is a graduate of Roanoke College in Virginia.

His interest in cognition, specifically perception, led him to guide his lab to studies that linked perception and neural responses in the 1960s. Although there were several notable works from his lab, the highest profile early paper appeared in 1968,[2] a study explaining the neural basis of flutter and vibration by the action of peripheral mechanoreceptors.

In 1978 Mountcastle proposed that all parts of the neocortex operate based on a common principle, with the cortical column being the unit of computation.[3]

Mountcastle's devotion to studies of single unit neural coding evolved through his leadership in the Bard Labs of Neurophysiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which was for many years the only institute in the world devoted to this sub-field, and its work is continued today in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.


Professor Mountcastle was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1966. In 1978, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who both received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981. In 1983, he was awarded the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. He also received the United States National Medal of Science in 1986. In 1998 Mountcastle was awarded the NAS Award in the Neurosciences from the National Academy of Sciences.[4]

David Hubel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech said Mountcastle's "discovery of columns in the somatosensory cortex was surely the single most important contribution to the understanding of cerebral cortex since Ramón y Cajal."[5]

Jeff Hawkins in his book On Intelligence describes Mountcastle's 1978 article An organizing principle.. as "the rosetta stone of neuroscience".[6]


  • Vernon Mountcastle (1978), "An Organizing Principle for Cerebral Function: The Unit Model and the Distributed System", The Mindful Brain (Gerald M. Edelman and Vernon B. Mountcastle, eds.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Vernon Mountcastle (1998), Perceptual neuroscience: the cerebral cortex, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-66188-2.
  • Vernon Mountcastle (2005), The sensory hand: neural mechanisms of somatic sensation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-01974-4.


  1. Mountcastle, V.B. (July 1957). Modality and topographic properties of single neurons of cat's somatic sensory cortex. J. Neurophysiol. 20 (4): 408–34.
  2. (March 1968). The sense of flutter-vibration: comparison of the human capacity with response patterns of mechanoreceptive afferents from the monkey hand. J. Neurophysiol. 31 (2): 301–34.
  3. Mountcastle, V. B. (1978), "An Organizing Principle for Cerebral Function: The Unit Model and the Distributed System", in Gerald M. Edelman and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain, MIT Press 
  4. Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal. National Academy of Sciences. URL accessed on 16 February 2011.
  5. Hubel, David H. Nobel lecture. URL accessed on 16 February 2011.
  6. On Intelligence, 2004, Jeff Hawkins, page 52

External linksEdit

Template:Winners of the National Medal of Science

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