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Distribution of neurons in functional areas of the mouse cerebral cortex reveals quantitatively different cortical zones

Herculano-Houzel S, Watson C, Paxinos G (2013) Front Neuroanat 7, 35.

How are neurons distributed along the cortical surface and across functional areas? Here we use the isotropic fractionator (Herculano-Houzel and Lent, 2005) to analyze the distribution of neurons across the entire isocortex of the mouse, divided into 18 functional areas defined anatomically. We find that the number of neurons underneath a surface area (the N/A ratio) varies 4.5-fold across functional areas and neuronal density varies 3.2-fold. The face area of S1 contains the most neurons, followed by motor cortex and the primary visual cortex. Remarkably, while the distribution of neurons across functional areas does not accompany the distribution of surface area, it mirrors closely the distribution of cortical volumes—with the exception of the visual areas, which hold more neurons than expected for their volume. Across the non-visual cortex, the volume of individual functional areas is a shared linear function of their number of neurons, while in the visual areas, neuronal densities are much higher than in all other areas. In contrast, the 18 functional areas cluster into three different zones according to the relationship between the N/A ratio and cortical thickness and neuronal density: these three clusters can be called visual, sensory, and, possibly, associative. These findings are remarkably similar to those in the human cerebral cortex (Ribeiro et al., 2013) and suggest that, like the human cerebral cortex, the mouse cerebral cortex comprises two zones that differ in how neurons form the cortical volume, and three zones that differ in how neurons are distributed underneath the cortical surface, possibly in relation to local differences in connectivity through the white matter. Our results suggest that beyond the developmental divide into visual and non-visual cortex, functional areas initially share a common distribution of neurons along the parenchyma that become delimited into functional areas according to the pattern of connectivity established later.

The PDF for this paper is freely available and can be downloaded here.