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date: 12 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

The neocortex is a part of the forebrain of mammals that is an innovation of mammal-like “reptilian” synapsid ancestors of early mammals. This neocortex emerged from a small region of dorsal cortex that was present in earlier ancestors and is still found in the forebrain of present-day reptiles. Instead of the thick structure of six layers of cells (five layers) and fibers (one layer) of neocortex of mammals, the dorsal cortex was characterized by a single layer of pyramidal neurons and a scattering of small, largely inhibitory neurons. In reptiles, the dorsal cortex is dominated by visual inputs, with outputs that relate to behavior and memory. The thicker neocortex of six layers in early mammals was already divided into a number of functionally specialized zones called cortical areas that were predominantly sensory in function, while relating to important aspects of motor behavior via subcortical projections. These early sensorimotor areas became modified in various ways as different branches of the mammalian radiation evolved, and neocortex often increased in size and the number of cortical areas, likely by the process of specializations within areas that subdivided areas. At least some areas, perhaps most, subdivided in another way by evolving two or more alternating types of small regions of different functional specializations, now referred to as cortical modules or columns. The specializations within and across cortical areas included those in the sizes of neurons and the extents of their processes, the dendrites and axons, and thus connections with other neurons. As a result, the neocortex of present-day mammals varies greatly within and across phylogenetically related groups (clades), while retaining basic features of organization from early ancestral mammals. In a number of present-day (extant) mammals, brains are relatively small and have little neocortex, with few areas and little structural differentiation, thus resembling early mammals. Other small mammals with little neocortex have specialized some part via selective enlargement and structural modifications to promote certain sensory abilities. Other mammals have a neocortex that is moderately to greatly expanded, with more cortical areas directly related to sensory processing and cognition and memory. The human brain is extreme in this way by having more neocortex in proportion to the rest of the brain, more cortical neurons, and likely more cortical areas.

Keywords: cortical areas, columns, visual cortex, motor cortex, neurons

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