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In 1664 Thomas Willis described distinct subcortical structures, then called the corpus striatum. It was believed to be the “sensorium commune” as defined by Aristotle; a central structure that received sensory modalities and initiated motor acts. By 1914, Wilson wrote that the corpus striatum “seemed to fall from its high estate and depreciate in physiological significance”. It gained importance with the discoveries that lesions of these areas would result in abnormal motor functions. The corpus striatum came to be viewed as the major “extrapyramidal motor system”.
Meynert developed new techniques and used thin serial sections stained with carmine or gold with quantitative neurohistological measurements. His major aim was to relate cortical function to varied cell types and to establish the neural association fibres (radiations of Meynert)1 within the brain. This predated the work of Fritsch and Hitzig in 1870.
He thereby produced the first description of the lamination and cellular diversity of the cerebral cortex in Stricker’s Handbook of human and animal histology (1872). In section three he describes a clearly extended ganglion underneath the fibres of the ansa peduncularis as the second layer of substantia innominata, named “Ganglion der Hirnschenkelschlinge”. Its large spindle like hyperchromatic nerve cells were measured. Because of this new element in the substantia innominata, Meynert distinguished four parts of the area: ansa peduncularis; nucleus (ganglion) of the ansa peduncularis; inferior (ventral) peduncle of the thalamus; and anterior part of the stratum zonale thalami.
Meynert’s powers of description were not the most lucid, and in 1896 Albert Köelliker renamed the ansa ganglion “Meynert’s basal ganglion”:
“The central, nearly superficial part of the disc-like formation of Meynert’s basal nucleus is found in the basal forebrain parallel to the ventral basis of the Nucleus lenticularis and underneath the Commissura anterior from its lateral entrance onwards; laterally, it reaches the Amygdaloid complex; caudally it extends towards the Tractus opticus; its oral part
makes contact with Substantia perforata anterior, the medial one reaches the Tuber cinereum.”
Meynert2–3 was born in Dresden on 14 June 1833. His father was a historian, his mother an opera singer. When he was eight, the family moved to Vienna and the influence of artistic and bohemian living never quite left him.
As a student, he worked with Wedl and Rokitansky, who fostered his talents. He received his medical doctorate after an untamed student life, in 1861. On the basis of his thesis Structure and function of the brain and spinal cord and their significance in disease, he was appointed “Privatdo-zent” in 1865 and Director of the Prosectorium of the state psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Regarded as prophet of scientific progress, he rapidly published several pioneering discoveries.4 In 1873 he became professor of nervous diseases. Meynert’s novel ideas drew many visitors to Vienna, but he was considered a poor teacher. His department, Forel related, was disorderly and filthy.
He was a small melancholic man with a massive head, a sprawling bushy beard, and mane-like hair. With colleagues he was brusque and, at times, dismissive, but his son had died aged 17, his wife also died young. His admirable drawings of the brain remain in the Neurological Institute of Vienna. His concepts of the brain5–6 he obscurely summarised:
“The main function of the central organ is to transmit the fact of existence to an ego gradually shaping itself in the stream of the brain . . . If we look upon the cortex as an organ functioning as a whole then the information that it subserves the processes of the mind is all that can be said . . . To think further about the cortex is impossible and unnecessary . . . But our hope to understand eventually the function of the hemispheres is raised again by the opposite assumption which leads us straight to an organology of the central surface . . . Between these two theoretical possibilities the facts have to decide.”
He studied minutely the visual, hippocampal cortex, the olfactory lobe, and
septum pellucidum. He separated the cortex with white surface (allocortex) from the cortex with a grey surface (neocortex) and created the phrase “organology of the cortex”, reflecting the function of brain as an organ. Central integration was dependent on the association process. He considered the motor cortex and basal nuclei as functionally antagonistic; thus, disease would lead to extrapyramidal disorder. He went on to point out the sensory feedback from muscles to the cortex. These and other highly original ideas were published in his Klinische vorlesungen uber psychiatrie auf wissen schaflichen grundlagen, in 1890.
Meynert was editor of the Wiener Jahrbücher für Psychiatrie and co-publisher of the Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten (Berlin) and of Vierteljahrsschrift für Psychiatrie. He was President of the Wiener Verein für Psychiatrie und Forensische Psychologie.
He inspired the work of Paul Emil Flechsig (1847–1929), Karl Wernicke (1848–1905) and Auguste-Henri Forel (1848–1931), Putnam, Bernard Sachs, and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).
In 1870 he was appointed Director of the Psychiatric Clinic and he started a neurological outpatient clinic in 1887. In later years he enjoyed high civic honours. However, he suffered grave personal losses in his family and untimely died at Klosterburg on 31 May 1892.
James Papez lists many of his main publications and biographies.4