The first scientist to show that the basic functional architecture of the cortex, the largest part of the human brain, was genetically determined during development was Dennis O'Leary of the Salk Institute. But as it so often does in science, answering one question opened up many others. O'Leary wondered what if the layout of the cortex wasn't fixed? What would happen if it were changed?
In the August issue of Nature Neuroscience
, O'Leary, holder of the Vincent J. Coates Chair of Molecular Neurobiology at Salk, and Andreas Zembrzycki, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, demonstrate that altering the cortical layout is possible, and that this alteration produces significant changes in parts of the brain that connect with the cortex and define its functional properties. These mechanisms may lay at the heart of neural developmental problems, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The human cortex is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. All mammals have areas in the cortex that process the senses, but they have them in different proportions. Mice, the favorite laboratory animal, are nocturnal, so they have a large somatosensory area (S1) in the cortex, responsible for somatosensation, or feelings of the body that include touch, pain, temperature and proprioception.
"The area layout of the cortex directly relates to the lifestyle of an animal," says Zembrzycki. "Areas are bigger or smaller according to the functional needs of the animal, not the physical size of the body parts from which they receive input."
Even with relative sizes to other species set in place, areas in the cortex of humans may differ greatly across individuals. Such variations may underlie why some people appear to be naturally better at certain perceptual tasks, such as hitting a baseball or detecting the details of visual illusions. In patients with neurological disorders, there is an even wider range of differences.
The neurons in S1 are arranged in functional groups called body maps according to the density of nerve endings in the skin; thus, there's a larger group of neurons dedicated to the skin on the face, than the skin on the legs. Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield famously illustrated this idea as a "sensory homunculus," a cartoon of disproportionately sized body parts arching over the cortex. Mice have a similar "mouseunculus" in their cortex in which the body map of the facial whiskers is highly enlarged.
These perceptual maps are not set for life. For example, if innervation of a body part is diminished early in life during a critical period, its map may shrink, while other parts of the body map may grow in compensation. This is a version of "bottom-up plasticity," in which external experience affects body maps in the brain.
In order to study cortical layout, O'Leary's team altered a regulatory gene, Pax6, in the cortex in mice. In response, S1 became much smaller, demonstrating that Pax6 regulates its development. They found that the shrinkage in S1 subsequently affected other regions of the brain that feed sensory information into the cortex, but more interestingly, it also altered the body maps in these subcortical brain regions, overturning the idea that once established, these brain regions could only be changed by external experience. They dubbed this previously unknown phenomenon "top down plasticity."
"Top-down plasticity complements in a reverse fashion the well-known bottom-up plasticity induced by sensory deprivation," says O'Leary.