Neocortex - Anatomy


The neocortex consists of the grey matter, or neuronal cell bodies and unmyelinated fibers, surrounding the deeper white matter (myelinated axons) in the cerebrum. The neocortex is smooth in rodents and other small mammals, whereas in primates and other larger mammals it has deep grooves (sulci) and wrinkles (gyri) . These folds increase the surface area of the neocortex considerably without taking up too much more volume. Also, neurons within the same gyrus have more opportunity for connectivity, while neurons in different gyri have less opportunity for connectivity, leading to compartmentalization of the cortex; possibly providing an anatomical division of different functions. This last point is emphasized by the fact that all human brains have the same pattern of gyri and sulci, whereas if the pattern of gyrification was driven only by limits of volume in the skull, it should be random for each individual.

The neocortex contains two primary types of neurons, excitatory pyramidal neurons (~80% of neocortical neurons) and inhibitory interneurons (~20%). The structure of the neocortex is relatively uniform (hence the alternative names "iso-" and "homotypic" cortex): it consists of six horizontal layers segregated principally by cell type and neuronal connections. However, there are many exceptions to this uniformity; for example, the motor cortex lacks layer IV. There is some canonical circuitry within the cortex; for example, pyramidal neurons in the upper layers II and III project their axons to other areas of neocortex, while those in the deeper layers V and VI project primarily out of the cortex, e.g. to the thalamus, brainstem, and spinal cord. Neurons in layer IV receive all of the synaptic connections from outside the cortex (mostly from thalamus), and themselves make short-range, local connections to other cortical layers. Thus, layer IV receives all incoming sensory information and distributes it to the other layers for further processing.

The neurons of the neocortex are also arranged in vertical structures called neocortical columns. These are patches of the neocortex with a diameter of about 0.5 mm (and a depth of 2 mm). Each column typically responds to a sensory stimulus representing a certain body part or region of sound or vision. These columns are similar, and can be thought of as the basic repeating functional units of the neocortex. In humans, the neocortex consists of about a half-million of these columns, each of which contains approximately 60,000 neurons. However, because of inhomogeneity in columnar borders outside the visual cortex, further studies are needed before accepting the columnar cortex theory as fact.

The neocortex is divided into frontal, parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes, which perform different functions. For example, the occipital lobe contains the primary visual cortex, and the temporal lobe contains the primary auditory cortex. Further subdivisions or areas of neocortex are responsible for more specific cognitive processes. In humans, the frontal lobe contains areas devoted to abilities that are enhanced in or unique to our species, such as complex language processing localized to the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (Broca's area). In humans and other primates, social and emotional processing is localized to the orbitofrontal cortex. (See Cerebral cortex and Cerebrum.)

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