Penfield, Epilepsy, and the Functional Brain

  • Published5 Sep 2012
  • Reviewed5 Sep 2012
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Wilder Penfield, a neuroscience pioneer, specialized in the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Discover how he was able to “map” the functions of different brain regions from Rebecca Williams, a research assistant at The University of Queensland in Australia, who submitted this video for the 2012 Brain Awareness Video Contest.



There once was a man named Wilder, who was upon a boat
When it was struck down by a torpedo, yet determined he stayed afloat
Following this ordeal, he decided that he wanted to make the world a better place to be
And the best way he could do this was by helping people with a disorder of the brain called epilepsy

Dr Penfield this man later became
And so begins our story, there is none quite the same
Of Penfield, epilepsy and the functional brain

Epilepsy causes seizures, which are spontaneous electrical discharges
Which disrupts the brain and its normal processes
Some seizures disrupt the whole brain, these are called generalised
Which may result in the person falling to the ground with body shaking, stiffening and closing of the eyes

A different seizure starts in a certain part of the brain, they can then spread or stay local
That is why these seizures are called focal
There might be a warning before these seizures take hold
Such as a strange smell; taste or de ja vu, so I am told

These focal seizures might also be the cause
Of hand movements, lip smacking and in speech there might be a pause
Because the nature of the focal seizure depends
On where in the brain it starts and ends

Dr Penfield came to see
That focal seizures could be treated with a bit of surgery
With his patients wide awake, he opened their heads and peered right in
And with an electrical current, stimulated certain brain regions

The goal of this whole endeavour
Was to find and remove the part of the brain that was starting the seizure
Quite often, things like tumours or scarring were found
With good chance that this is where the epilepsy was bound

However before removal could lead to cure,
The surrounding brain regions needed to be mapped so that disability would not endure
From these brave patients, so much was to be learnt
Because as Dr Penfield stimulated certain brain regions, patterns began to emerge

A stream of past memories were brought about with a probe
To certain regions of the temporal lobes
When the occipital lobes were given a buzz
Colours and shapes were to be seen as one usually does

When he probed the motor and sensory parts of the brain
He could see what movements and feelings were to be gained
And so Dr Penfield, by attempting to cure epilepsy- a feat that is no means simple
Became amongst the first to map the brain and its functional organisation in living people

However, this is not the story of Dr Penfield in its absolute
He did many more things, such as finding the Montreal Neurological Institute
But from here the story of functional brain mapping did begin
And now we have the technology to peer within

Without having to open the head and stimulate with electrodes
Rather we can take pictures of the blood as it flows
However do not think that we know all that there is about the brain
In fact, there are many more questions that remain

But it is with gratitude that we should say thanks to the brave patients for all we have learnt
And look ahead to the new findings that from neuroscience will emerge.

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