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The human cerebral cortex is neither one nor many: Neuronal distribution reveals two quantitatively different zones in the gray matter, three in the white matter, and explains local variations in cortical folding

Ribeiro PFM, Ventura-Antunes L, Gabi M, Mota B, Grinberg LT, Farfel JM, Ferretti-Rebustini REL, Leite REP, Jacob Filho W, Herculano-Houzel S (2013) Front Neuroanat 7, 28.

The human prefrontal cortex has been considered different in several aspects and relatively enlarged compared to the rest of the cortical areas. Here we determine whether the white and gray matter of the prefrontal portion of the human cerebral cortex have similar or different cellular compositions relative to the rest of the cortical regions by applying the Isotropic Fractionator to analyze the distribution of neurons along the entire anteroposterior axis of the cortex, and its relationship with the degree of gyrification, number of neurons under the cortical surface, and other parameters. The prefrontal region shares with the remainder of the cerebral cortex (except for occipital cortex) the same relationship between cortical volume and number of neurons. In contrast, both occipital and prefrontal areas vary from other cortical areas in their connectivity through the white matter, with a systematic reduction of cortical connectivity through the white matter and an increase of the mean axon caliber along the anteroposterior axis. These two parameters explain local differences in the distribution of neurons underneath the cortical surface. We also show that local variations in cortical folding are neither a function of local numbers of neurons nor of cortical thickness, but correlate with properties of the white matter, and are best explained by the folding of the white matter surface. Our results suggest that the human cerebral cortex is divided in two zones (occipital and non-occipital) that differ in how neurons are distributed across their gray matter volume and in three zones (prefrontal, occipital, and non-occipital) that differ in how neurons are connected through the white matter. Thus, the human prefrontal cortex has the largest fraction of neuronal connectivity through the white matter and the smallest average axonal caliber in the white matter within the cortex, although its neuronal composition fits the pattern found for other, non-occipital areas.

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