Franco Pestilli, Indiana University – Re-discovering A Lost Part of the Brain

WebDid scientific rivalry delay an important discovery in brain research?

Franco Pestilli, assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, examines how a once forgotten discovery may bring huge benefits to our health.

Franco Pestilli is an assistant professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He is also associated with the IU Network Science Institute and the Programs in Neuroscience and in Cognitive Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As a researcher, Pestilli investigates the white matter, microstructures and anatomy of the brain. He is especially interested in the computational modeling of human behavior and brain activity; the psychophysics of visual perception and reading; and the behavioral and brain mechanisms of motivation and attention.

Before coming to IU in January 2015, Pestilli served as a research associate at Stanford University, where he was part of the team that uncovered a major brain structure known as the vertical occipital fasciculus, or VOF, which had disappeared from medical literature over a century ago. At IU, he and an international team of colleagues followed up their initial study with a paper in the journal Cerebral Cortex that suggests this missing part of the brain may play an important role in how the brain perceives objects and space.

His collaborators on the project, which received support from the IU College of Arts and Sciences, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, were Ariel Rokem of the University of Washington; Hiromasa Takemura of the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Japan; Brian Wandell of Stanford; Jonathan Winawer of New York University and Jason Yeatman of the University of Washington. His collaborators on the research at Stanford were Aviv Mezer, Rokem, Wandell, Kevin Weiner and Yeatman.

Pestilli holds a Ph.D. from New York University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rome, La Sapienza.

He has also been a postdoctoral fellow at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan and at Columbia University in New York.

Re-Discovering A Lost Part of the Brain


Last year we uncovered a mysterious brain structure known as the vertical occipital fasciculus – or VOF, for short – which disappeared from medical literature over a century ago.

Now, more recently, we’ve used advanced magnetic resonance imaging to map parts of the brain the VOF connects.

A long bushy bundle of nerves that ends at the cortex, the VOF appears to connect two key parts of the visual system: the part that identifies objects, words and faces, and the part that orients us in space.

Injury to the VOF could result in a disconnect between “what” and “where” – how we recognize an object and how we perceive its location.

Understanding how the VOF communicates between brain functions could reveal important information about cognitive and sensory deficits in individuals.

How did a part of the brain disappear in the first place? The answer may be scientific rivalry.

The VOF was first described in 1881 by Carl Wernicke, a German-Austrian neuroanatomist.

But another prominent scientist at the time, Theodor Meynert never accepted the structure.

Over time, the VOF faded into obscurity. Until now.

Our research has brought high-resolution measurements of living human brains. These measurements — a hundred years later — are only starting to unlock the secrets of the VOF.


  1. Linda Pelka