Cortex, cognition and the cell: new insights into the pyramidal neuron and prefrontal function

Cereb Cortex. 2003 Nov;13(11):1124-38. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhg093.


Arguably the most complex cortical functions are seated in human cognition, the how and why of which have been debated for centuries by theologians, philosophers and scientists alike. In his best-selling book, An Astonishing Hypothesis: A Scientific Search for the Soul, Francis Crick refined the view that these qualities are determined solely by cortical cells and circuitry. Put simply, cognition is nothing more, or less, than a biological function. Accepting this to be the case, it should be possible to identify the mechanisms that subserve cognitive processing. Since the pioneering studies of Lorent de Nó and Hebb, and the more recent studies of Fuster, Miller and Goldman-Rakic, to mention but a few, much attention has been focused on the role of persistent neural activity in cognitive processes. Application of modern technologies and modelling techniques has led to new hypotheses about the mechanisms of persistent activity. Here I focus on how regional variations in the pyramidal cell phenotype may determine the complexity of cortical circuitry and, in turn, influence neural activity. Data obtained from thousands of individually injected pyramidal cells in sensory, motor, association and executive cortex reveal marked differences in the numbers of putative excitatory inputs received by these cells. Pyramidal cells in prefrontal cortex have, on average, up to 23 times more dendritic spines than those in the primary visual area. I propose that without these specializations in the structure of pyramidal cells, and the circuits they form, human cognitive processing would not have evolved to its present state. I also present data from both New World and Old World monkeys that show varying degrees of complexity in the pyramidal cell phenotype in their prefrontal cortices, suggesting that cortical circuitry and, thus, cognitive styles are evolving independently in different species.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / cytology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Phenotype
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / cytology
  • Pyramidal Cells / physiology*