Microstructure of the neocortex: comparative aspects

J Neurocytol. Mar-Jun 2002;31(3-5):299-316. doi: 10.1023/a:1024130211265.


The appearance of the neocortex, its expansion, and its differentiation in mammals, represents one of the principal episodes in the evolution of the vertebrate brain. One of the fundamental questions in neuroscience is what is special about the neocortex of humans and how does it differ from that of other species? It is clear that distinct cortical areas show important differences within both the same and different species, and this has led to some researchers emphasizing the similarities whereas others focus on the differences. In general, despite of the large number of different elements that contribute to neocortical circuits, it is thought that neocortical neurons are organized into multiple, small repeating microcircuits, based around pyramidal cells and their input-output connections. These inputs originate from extrinsic afferent systems, excitatory glutamatergic spiny cells (which include other pyramidal cells and spiny stellate cells), and inhibitory GABAergic interneurons. The problem is that the neuronal elements that make up the basic microcircuit are differentiated into subtypes, some of which are lacking or highly modified in different cortical areas or species. Furthermore, the number of neurons contained in a discrete vertical cylinder of cortical tissue varies across species. Additionally, it has been shown that the neuropil in different cortical areas of the human, rat and mouse has a characteristic layer specific synaptology. These variations most likely reflect functional differences in the specific cortical circuits. The laminar specific similarities between cortical areas and between species, with respect to the percentage, length and density of excitatory and inhibitory synapses, and to the number of synapses per neuron, might be considered as the basic cortical building bricks. In turn, the differences probably indicate the evolutionary adaptation of excitatory and inhibitory circuits to particular functions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cell Count
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron / methods
  • Neocortex / ultrastructure*
  • Neuropil / ultrastructure
  • Species Specificity
  • Synapses / classification
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure