In 2012, a team of researchers out of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences thought they'd stumbled upon a new pathway in the brain associated with reading that had somehow been glossed over by their predecessors. "We couldn't find it in any atlas," one researchers tells LiveScience. It turns out the pathway had indeed been identified before, first by well-known neuroscientist Carl Wernicke in 1881 (it's called the vertical occipital fasciculus, or VOF), but it was left largely unexplored and unlabeled in brain maps for the next century-plus. So the researchers set out to understand not only the pathway itself, but also why it's been so widely ignored, and they published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Thanks to new brain imaging of 37 people, the team learned that the VOF spreads out like a sheet from the occipital lobe, which processes visual information, and connects different brain regions that deal with motion perception, attention, and eye movements, as well as the perception of visual categories, like faces or words. This pathway—which, unlike most in the brain, travels up and down instead of side to side (which might explain why one prominent neuroscientist overlooked it)—may show how these different types of visual perception are connected. Thanks to two case studies dating back to the 1970s, researchers learned that people with damaged VOF could no longer recognize words and thus couldn't read. Even the nerve cell coating that helps move information quickly (called myelination) looks different in the VOF than elsewhere in the brain. (Check out what lack of sleep might be doing to your brain.)