Lost Brain Pathway Found

Photo caption: The VOF identified in a postmortem human brain in 1909 but labeled with a different name.

A few years ago I-LABS' Jason Yeatman, then a graduate student at Stanford University, found himself solving a mystery of an unidentified large fiber pathway in the human brain.

“It was this massive bundle of fibers, visible in every brain I examined,” said Yeatman, now an assistant professor at I-LABS. “It seemed unlikely that I was the first to have noticed this structure; however, as far as I could tell, it was absent from the literature and from all major neuroanatomy textbooks.”

What could it be?

The November 2015 issue of Discover Magazine traces the scientific detective work that Yeatman and colleague Kevin Weiner pursued to discover—or as it turned out, "rediscover"—the identity of what turned out to be the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF).

The pathway, which Yeatman and Weiner identified by poring over old brain atlases, is about a half inch from the surface of the brain and could be easily missed or accidentally ripped out during brain dissections, noted Weiner in the Discover story "Lost and Found."

Disagreement between scientists and haphazard naming methods in the late 1800s had led to the fiber bundle being left out of neuroscience textbooks. There are likely other brain structures that have been forgotten or overlooked, Weiner said in Discover.

"I like telling this story because it is an example of how much fun science can be," Yeatman recently said of the work, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.

"This project began because Kevin and I enjoyed working together and every time we dug into the scientific archives, we found a new tidbit that fascinated us," Yeatman said. "It’s a real kick that other people are enjoying this story as much as we did."

Read the Discover story (subscription required).
Learn more about the research, see more brain images in an I-LABS Q&A with Yeatman.