Neuronal cell-type classification: challenges, opportunities and the path forward

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2017 Sep;18(9):530-546. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2017.85. Epub 2017 Aug 3.


Neurons have diverse molecular, morphological, connectional and functional properties. We believe that the only realistic way to manage this complexity - and thereby pave the way for understanding the structure, function and development of brain circuits - is to group neurons into types, which can then be analysed systematically and reproducibly. However, neuronal classification has been challenging both technically and conceptually. New high-throughput methods have created opportunities to address the technical challenges associated with neuronal classification by collecting comprehensive information about individual cells. Nonetheless, conceptual difficulties persist. Borrowing from the field of species taxonomy, we propose principles to be followed in the cell-type classification effort, including the incorporation of multiple, quantitative features as criteria, the use of discontinuous variation to define types and the creation of a hierarchical system to represent relationships between cells. We review the progress of classifying cell types in the retina and cerebral cortex and propose a staged approach for moving forward with a systematic cell-type classification in the nervous system.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology*
  • Humans
  • Neurons / classification*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Retina / cytology*