Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have demonstrated that sensory regions in the brain develop in a fundamentally different way than previously thought, a finding that may yield new insights into visual and neural disorders.
In a paper published June 7, in Science, Salk researcher Dennis O'Leary and his colleagues have shown that genes alone do not determine how the cerebral cortex grows into separate functional areas. Instead, they show that input from the thalamus, the main switching station in the brain for sensory information, is crucially required.
O'Leary has done pioneering studies in "arealization," the way in which the neo-cortex, the major region of cerebral cortex, develops specific areas dedicated to particular functions. In a landmark paper published in Science in 2000, he showed that two regulatory genes were critically responsible for the general pattern of the neo-cortex, and has since shown distinct roles for other genes in this process. In this new set of mouse experiments, his laboratory focused on the visual system, and discovered a new, unexpected twist to the story.
"In order to function properly, it is essential that cortical areas are mapped out correctly, and it is this architecture that was thought to be genetically pre-programmed," says O'Leary, holder of the Vincent J. Coates Chair in Molecular Neurobiology at Salk. "To our surprise, we discovered thalamic input plays an essential role far earlier in brain development."
Vision is relayed from the outside world into processing areas within the brain. The relay starts when light hits the retina, a thin strip of cells at the back of the eye that detects color and light levels and encodes the information as electrical and chemical signals. Through retinal ganglion cells, those signals are then sent into the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus (LGN), a structure in thalamus.
In the next important step in the relay, the
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