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      The Functioning of a Cortex without Layers

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          A major hallmark of cortical organization is the existence of a variable number of layers, i.e., sheets of neurons stacked on top of each other, in which neurons have certain commonalities. However, even for the neocortex, variable numbers of layers have been described and it is just a convention to distinguish six layers from each other. Whether cortical layers are a structural epiphenomenon caused by developmental dynamics or represent a functionally important modularization of cortical computation is still unknown. Here we present our insights from the reeler mutant mouse, a model for a developmental, “molecular lesion”-induced loss of cortical layering that could serve as ground truth of what an intact layering adds to the cortex in terms of functionality. We could demonstrate that the reeler neocortex shows no inversion of cortical layers but rather a severe disorganization that in the primary somatosensory cortex leads to the complete loss of layers. Nevertheless, the somatosensory system is well organized. When exploring an enriched environment with specific sets of whiskers, activity-dependent gene expression takes place in the corresponding modules. Precise whisker stimuli lead to the functional activation of somatotopically organized barrel columns as visualized by intrinsic signal optical imaging. Similar results were obtained in the reeler visual system. When analyzing pathways that could be responsible for preservation of tactile perception, lemniscal thalamic projections were found to be largely intact, despite the smearing of target neurons across the cortical mantle. However, with optogenetic experiments we found evidence for a mild dispersion of thalamic synapse targeting on layer IV-spiny stellate cells, together with a general weakening in thalamocortical input strength. This weakening of thalamic inputs was compensated by intracortical mechanisms involving increased recurrent excitation and/or reduced feedforward inhibition. In conclusion, a layer loss so far only led to the detection of subtle defects in sensory processing by reeler mice. This argues in favor of a view in which cortical layers are not an essential component for basic perception and cognition. A view also supported by recent studies in birds, which can have remarkable cognitive capacities despite the lack of a neocortex with multiple cortical layers. In conclusion, we suggest that future studies directed toward understanding cortical functions should rather focus on circuits specified by functional cell type composition than mere laminar location.

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          Most cited references 105

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          The neocortical circuit: themes and variations.

          Similarities in neocortical circuit organization across areas and species suggest a common strategy to process diverse types of information, including sensation from diverse modalities, motor control and higher cognitive processes. Cortical neurons belong to a small number of main classes. The properties of these classes, including their local and long-range connectivity, developmental history, gene expression, intrinsic physiology and in vivo activity patterns, are remarkably similar across areas. Each class contains subclasses; for a rapidly growing number of these, conserved patterns of input and output connections are also becoming evident. The ensemble of circuit connections constitutes a basic circuit pattern that appears to be repeated across neocortical areas, with area- and species-specific modifications. Such 'serially homologous' organization may adapt individual neocortical regions to the type of information each must process.
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            Wiring optimization can relate neuronal structure and function.

            We pursue the hypothesis that neuronal placement in animals minimizes wiring costs for given functional constraints, as specified by synaptic connectivity. Using a newly compiled version of the Caenorhabditis elegans wiring diagram, we solve for the optimal layout of 279 nonpharyngeal neurons. In the optimal layout, most neurons are located close to their actual positions, suggesting that wiring minimization is an important factor. Yet some neurons exhibit strong deviations from "optimal" position. We propose that biological factors relating to axonal guidance and command neuron functions contribute to these deviations. We capture these factors by proposing a modified wiring cost function.
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              Cortical connectivity and sensory coding.

              The sensory cortex contains a wide array of neuronal types, which are connected together into complex but partially stereotyped circuits. Sensory stimuli trigger cascades of electrical activity through these circuits, causing specific features of sensory scenes to be encoded in the firing patterns of cortical populations. Recent research is beginning to reveal how the connectivity of individual neurons relates to the sensory features they encode, how differences in the connectivity patterns of different cortical cell classes enable them to encode information using different strategies, and how feedback connections from higher-order cortex allow sensory information to be integrated with behavioural context.

                Author and article information

                Front Neuroanat
                Front Neuroanat
                Front. Neuroanat.
                Frontiers in Neuroanatomy
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                12 July 2017
                : 11
                1Institute for Neuroanatomy, University Medical Center Göttingen, Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany
                2DFG Center for Nanoscale Microscopy and Molecular Physiology of the Brain (CNMPB) Göttingen, Germany
                Author notes

                Edited by: Kathleen S. Rockland, Boston University School of Medicine, United States

                Reviewed by: Andre Goffinet, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium; Gabriella D’Arcangelo, Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey, United States

                Copyright © 2017 Guy and Staiger.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 4, Tables: 0, Equations: 0, References: 114, Pages: 13, Words: 9987
                Funded by: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 10.13039/501100001659
                Award ID: Sta 431/11-1, CNMPB -B2


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