What Is The Cerebral Cortex?

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue of the cerebrum of the brain in humans and other mammals. It is separated into two cortices, by the longitudinal fissure that divides the cerebrum into the left and right cerebral hemispheres.

The two hemispheres are joined beneath the cortex by the corpus callosum. The cerebral cortex is the largest site of neural integration in the central nervous system. It plays a key role in attention, perception, awareness, thought, memory, language, and consciousness.

In most mammals, apart from small mammals that have small brains, the cerebral cortex is folded, providing a greater surface area in the confined volume of the cranium. Apart from minimising brain and cranial volume, cortical folding is crucial for the wiring of the brain and its functional organisation. In mammals with a small brain there is no folding and the cortex is smooth.

A fold or ridge in the cortex is termed a gyrus (plural gyri) and a groove is termed a sulcus (plural sulci). These surface convolutions appear during fetal development and continue to mature after birth through the process of gyrification.

In the human brain the majority of the cerebral cortex is not visible from the outside, but buried in the sulci,[1] and the insular cortex is completely hidden. The major sulci and gyri mark the divisions of the cerebrum into the lobes of the brain.

There are between 14 and 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex. These are organised into cortical columns and minicolumns of neurons that make up the layers of the cortex.

Most of the cerebral cortex consists of the six-layered neocortex. Cortical areas have specific functions such as movement in the motor cortex, and sight in the visual cortex.

Function Of The Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is connected to various subcortical structures such as the thalamus and the basal ganglia, sending information to them along efferent connections and receiving information from them via afferent connections. Most sensory information is routed to the cerebral cortex via the thalamus. Olfactory information, however, passes through the olfactory bulb to the olfactory cortex (piriform cortex).

Some functional areas of cortex

Some functional areas of the cortex
Credit: RobinH CC BY-SA 3.0

The majority of connections are from one area of the cortex to another, rather than from subcortical areas; Braitenberg and Schüz (1998) claim that in primary sensory areas, at the cortical level where the input fibres terminate, up to 20% of the synapses are supplied by extracortical afferents but that in other areas and other layers the percentage is likely to be much lower.[2]

Cortical Areas

The whole of the cerebral cortex was divided into 52 different areas in an early presentation by Korbinian Brodmann. These areas known as Brodmann areas, are based on their cytoarchitecture but also relate to various functions. An example is Brodmann area 17 which is the primary visual cortex.

In more general terms the cortex is typically described as comprising three parts: sensory, motor, and association areas.

Sensory Areas

The sensory areas are the cortical areas that receive and process information from the senses. Parts of the cortex that receive sensory inputs from the thalamus are called primary sensory areas. The senses of vision, hearing, and touch are served by the primary visual cortex, primary auditory cortex and primary somatosensory cortex respectively.

In general, the two hemispheres receive information from the opposite (contralateral) side of the body. For example, the right primary somatosensory cortex receives information from the left limbs, and the right visual cortex receives information from the left visual field. The organization of sensory maps in the cortex reflects that of the corresponding sensing organ, in what is known as a topographic map.

Neighboring points in the primary visual cortex, for example, correspond to neighboring points in the retina. This topographic map is called a retinotopic map.

In the same way, there exists a tonotopic map in the primary auditory cortex and a somatotopic map in the primary sensory cortex. This last topographic map of the body onto the posterior central gyrus has been illustrated as a deformed human representation, the somatosensory homunculus, where the size of different body parts reflects the relative density of their innervation. Areas with lots of sensory innervation, such as the fingertips and the lips, require more cortical area to process finer sensation.

Motor Areas

The motor areas are located in both hemispheres of the cortex. The motor areas are very closely related to the control of voluntary movements, especially fine fragmented movements performed by the hand. The right half of the motor area controls the left side of the body, and vice versa.

Just underneath the cerebral cortex are interconnected subcortical masses of grey matter called basal ganglia (or nuclei). The basal ganglia receive input from the substantia nigra of the midbrain and motor areas of the cerebral cortex, and send signals back to both of these locations. They are involved in motor control. They are found lateral to the thalamus.

The main components of the basal ganglia are the caudate nucleus, the putamen, the globus pallidus, the substantia nigra, the nucleus accumbens, and the subthalamic nucleus. The putamen and globus pallidus are also collectively known as the lentiform nucleus, because together they form a lens-shaped body. The putamen and caudate nucleus are also collectively called the corpus striatum after their striped appearance.

Association Areas

The association areas are the parts of the cerebral cortex that do not belong to the primary regions. They function to produce a meaningful perceptual experience of the world, enable us to interact effectively, and support abstract thinking and language. The parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes – all located in the posterior part of the cortex – integrate sensory information and information stored in memory.

The frontal lobe or prefrontal association complex is involved in planning actions and movement, as well as abstract thought. Globally, the association areas are organized as distributed networks. Each network connects areas distributed across widely spaced regions of the cortex. Distinct networks are positioned adjacent to one another yielding a complex series of interwoven networks. The specific organization of the association networks is debated with evidence for interactions, hierarchical relationships, and competition between networks.

In humans, association networks are particularly important to language function. In the past it was theorized that language abilities are localized in Broca’s area in areas of the left inferior frontal gyrus, BA44 and BA45, for language expression and in Wernicke’s area BA22, for language reception.

However, the processes of language expression and reception have been shown to occur in areas other than just those structures around the lateral sulcus, including the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and pons.

Structure

The cerebral cortex is the outer covering of the surfaces of the cerebral hemispheres and is folded into peaks called gyri, and grooves called sulci. In the human brain it is between two and three or four millimetres thick, and makes up 40 per cent of the brain’s mass. There are between 14 and 16 billion neurons in the cortex, and these are organized in cortical columns, and minicolumns of the layers of the cortex.

About two thirds of the cortical surface is buried in the sulci and the insular cortex is completely hidden. The cortex is thickest over the top of a gyrus and thinnest at the bottom of a sulcus.

Folds

The cerebral cortex is folded in a way that allows a large surface area of neural tissue to fit within the confines of the neurocranium. When unfolded in the human, each hemispheric cortex has a total surface area of about 1.3 sq ft.[3]

The folding is inward away from the surface of the brain, and is also present on the medial surface of each hemisphere within the longitudinal fissure. Most mammals have a cerebral cortex that is convoluted with the peaks known as gyri and the troughs or grooves known as sulci. Some small mammals including some small rodents have smooth cerebral surfaces without gyrification.

Lobes

The larger sulci and gyri mark the divisions of the cortex of the cerebrum into the lobes of the brain. There are four main lobes: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe. The insular cortex is often included as the insular lobe. The limbic lobe is a rim of cortex on the medial side of each hemisphere and is also often included.

There are also three lobules of the brain described: the paracentral lobule, the superior parietal lobule, and the inferior parietal lobule.

Thickness

Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (MRI) makes it possible to get a measure for the thickness of the human cerebral cortex and relate it to other measures. The thickness of different cortical areas varies but in general, sensory cortex is thinner than motor cortex. One study has found some positive association between the cortical thickness and intelligence.

Another study has found that the somatosensory cortex is thicker in migraine sufferers, though it is not known if this is the result of migraine attacks or the cause of them. A later study using a larger patient population reports no change in the cortical thickness in migraine sufferers. A genetic disorder of the cerebral cortex, whereby decreased folding in certain areas results in a microgyrus, where there are four layers instead of six, is in some instances seen to be related to dyslexia.

Layers Of Neocortex

The six cortical layers of the neocortex each contain a characteristic distribution of different neurons and their connections with other cortical and subcortical regions. There are direct connections between different cortical areas and indirect connections via the thalamus.

One of the clearest examples of cortical layering is the line of Gennari in the primary visual cortex. This is a band of whiter tissue that can be observed with the naked eye in the fundus of the calcarine sulcus of the occipital lobe. The line of Gennari is composed of axons bringing visual information from the thalamus into layer IV of the visual cortex.

Staining cross-sections of the cortex to reveal the position of neuronal cell bodies and the intracortical axon tracts allowed neuroanatomists in the early 20th century to produce a detailed description of the laminar structure of the cortex in different species. After the work of Korbinian Brodman, the neurons of the cerebral cortex are grouped into six main layers, from the outer pial surface to the inner white matter.

[1] Principles of neural science (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill, Health Professions Division. 2000-01-05. ISBN 978-0838577011

[2] Braitenberg, V and Schüz, A 1998. Cortex: Statistics and Geometry of Neuronal Connectivity. Second thoroughly revised edition. New York: Springer-Verlag

[3] Toro, Roberto; Perron, Michel; Pike, Bruce; Richer, Louis; Veillette, Suzanne; Pausova, Zdenka; Paus, Tomáš (2008-10-01). Brain Size and Folding of the Human Cerebral Cortex. Cerebral Cortex. 18 (10): 2352–2357. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhm261