, Volume 212, Issue 1, pp 3-17
Date: 01 Jun 2007

Excitatory signal flow and connectivity in a cortical column: focus on barrel cortex

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Abstract

A basic feature of the neocortex is its organization in functional, vertically oriented columns, recurring modules of signal processing and a system of transcolumnar long-range horizontal connections. These columns, together with their network of neurons, present in all sensory cortices, are the cellular substrate for sensory perception in the brain. Cortical columns contain thousands of neurons and span all cortical layers. They receive input from other cortical areas and subcortical brain regions and in turn their neurons provide output to various areas of the brain. The modular concept presumes that the neuronal network in a cortical column performs basic signal transformations, which are then integrated with the activity in other networks and more extended brain areas. To understand how sensory signals from the periphery are transformed into electrical activity in the neocortex it is essential to elucidate the spatial-temporal dynamics of cortical signal processing and the underlying neuronal ‘microcircuits’. In the last decade the ‘barrel’ field in the rodent somatosensory cortex, which processes sensory information arriving from the mysticial vibrissae, has become a quite attractive model system because here the columnar structure is clearly visible. In the neocortex and in particular the barrel cortex, numerous neuronal connections within or between cortical layers have been studied both at the functional and structural level. Besides similarities, clear differences with respect to both physiology and morphology of synaptic transmission and connectivity were found. It is therefore necessary to investigate each neuronal connection individually, in order to develop a realistic model of neuronal connectivity and organization of a cortical column. This review attempts to summarize recent advances in the study of individual microcircuits and their functional relevance within the framework of a cortical column, with emphasis on excitatory signal flow.