Brain researcher Leslie Ungerleider has spent her career leading efforts to figure out which parts of the brain are used in making sense of all that we see in the world around us. That has been no easy task. It took two decades for Ungerleider and her collaborators to trace what scientists now call the “what” and “where” pathways--areas of the brain are independently responsible for helping us recognize objects and navigate our world.
A distinguished investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Ungerleider also discovered more recently the areas of the brain that preferentially respond to scenes and landscapes.
This painstaking work in both humans and monkeys has revealed some of the most basic workings of the human brain, making Ungerleider one of the most influential and heavily cited authors in the field.
“Leslie Ungerleider has been an important leader in the study of the structure and function of the visual cortex,” said John Allman, a professor of neurobiology at California Institute of Technology.
Ungerleider’s groundbreaking work over more than 40 years earned her the 2011 Golden Brain Award from the Berkeley, California-based Minerva Foundation. The award recognizes outstanding contributions in vision and brain research and was presented to Ungerleider in a private ceremony during the 41st annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C. in November, 2011.
Early in her career, Ungerleider focused on the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information. In particular, she began by studying how the brain recognizes objects under conditions that are constantly changing. That work opened up a whole new area of research that culminated in the discovery of the “what” and “where” pathways.
“We confirmed the existence of the pathways and delineated the precise anatomical connections within the brain,” said Ungerleider, who is also in charge of NIMH’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.
Ungerleider began her work in monkeys, but, with the improvement of imaging technology, she began using PET scans and fMRI to confirm her findings in humans.
“We found that we could now light up these pathways in normal, healthy human brains.”
Ungerleider and her colleagues continue to work on these two pathways and have since discovered that there are interconnections between the two. “There are areas in the brain where the two pathways converge, so there is the opportunity for cross talk and integration of ‘what’ and ‘where’ information.”
Currently, Ungerleider has also become interested in confirming the existence of an area of the brain that is responsible for face recognition. The clues exist, she said. Brain damage to certain areas of the brain results in the loss of the ability to recognize faces. In addition, a certain birth defect impairs a person’s ability to recognize the faces of even close relatives.
“We also know from work in the late 70s that there are cells in the monkey brain that are activated by faces and not by presentation of non-face objects.”
Ungerleider continues to map one of the most fascinating ‘landscapes’ known to man: the visual cortex of the human brain.