Much brain research has proposed that the brain (the neocortex, esp.) is set up in areas - an area for faces, an area for language, etc..

The experiments typically go 1) damage an area 2) observe what function is lost. And this has produced a good deal of evidence that behavior ends up being localized. But for me, this information is incomplete, especially in the light of studies that show that every part of the cortex does essentially the same thing!

Has anybody ever done a study where, looking at tiny areas of neocortex, scientists can identify a) what information it contains b) what it does, or c) from what part it came?

  • $\begingroup$ I think the term you're looking for is neural coding, which is how neurons encode information and how to decode information from them. I don't know that many papers, but this should help you out a bit. $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    Jan 28 '15 at 22:43

...studies that show that every part of the cortex does essentially the same thing!

I would be much interested in seeing these studies - Although the brain is plastic and inter-individual differences can be substantial, it is generally accepted that functional regions are well defined in terms of their anatomical locations and brain mapping was, and still is, a field of research in its own right.

Studies where

tiny areas of neocortex [were studied]

have been done, and showing

what it does

Notable examples include singe-unit recordings (cellular level - as tiny as you can get) that mapped the primary visual cortex (V1) and auditory cortex (AI). Such studies have shown that V1 contains retinotopic maps, and AI contains tonotopic maps, i.e., these studies showed that each region in the retina projects to a well-defined and neatly organized region in V1 (e.g., Cowey, 1979), and well-defined anatomical locations in the cochlea project to well-defined and well organized regions in AI (e.g., Ozaki & Hashimoto, 2007).

what information it contains

is hard to answer, as the brain is not a hard disk that can be read back. However, studies on Alzheimer patients do reveal that old memories are often relatively spared, while new ones fail to be stored properly, indicating indirectly what information the affected cortex contains.

- Cowey, Quarterly J Exp Psychol; 31(1): 1-17
- Ozaki & Hashimoto, Can J Neurol Sci (2007); 34(2): 146-53


I wanted to make a few additions to Christiaan's answer. First of all, the functional location's as described by Brodmann (wiki) is a little outdated. Nowadays, it is believed that there are networks of regions that are responsible for a particular function. An example is the default mode network, a network of the ACC and prefrontal regions, that is associated with self-generated thought or mind-wandering (1, 2).

There is also another line of research that focuses on functional location: Trans-cranial Magnetic stimulation (TMS). With TMS you stimulate the brain with a strong magnetic field, therewith (de-)activating a particular area of the brain for a short period of time. If you would stimulate a part of the motor cortex, you could, for instance twitch someone's arm. Or, if you would stimulate parts of the visual cortex, you could temporarily cause (color-/movement-) blindness. If you search for TMS, there are plenty of other examples.


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