Brain’s Unified Blueprint: Shaping Early Neurodevelopment

Summary: Researchers provided new insights into brain development, revealing that different brain regions share a similar organizational structure in early stages rather than being pre-specialized. This finding, supported by advanced optical imaging, suggests a universal blueprint for brain development, which has significant implications for understanding neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

By observing synchronized activity in nerve cell networks across various brain regions, the study highlights a potential common foundation for brain disorders, offering a new perspective on their widespread impact. Future research will further explore how this shared developmental pattern evolves over time and across different brain areas.

Key Facts:

  1. Shared Early Development: Different brain areas, including sensory and cognitive regions, exhibit similar early developmental patterns, indicating a single, shared blueprint for brain organization.
  2. Implications for Neurodevelopmental Disorders: This uniformity suggests that disorders affecting multiple brain regions, like autism and schizophrenia, might stem from disruptions in this common developmental pathway.
  3. Surprise Finding in Non-sensory Regions: The discovery of synchronized nerve cell activity groups in traditionally non-sensory areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, challenges previous assumptions about brain organization and specialization.

Source: University of Minnesota

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School investigated brain development to understand how different areas of the brain become specialized in handling information such as vision, sound, touch and planning. 

The study found that different areas of the brain start with a similar organization rather than already being specialized in early development. This suggests that the brain might use a single shared blueprint to guide early development. 

This shows a baby.
Ongoing research will examine other brain regions at different stages of development to determine how the common blueprint identified in this study changes over time. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Throughout life, the brain continually builds on the foundations set earlier in development. This strong similarity in early development across very different areas of the brain suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders — such as autism or schizophrenia, which affect many different parts of the nervous system — may act similarly across these different brain areas,” said Gordon Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor at the U of M Medical School and principal investigator on the study. Dr. Smith is also a member of the Medical Discovery Team on Optical Imaging and Brain Science. 

In collaboration with the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, the research team used advanced optical imaging techniques to measure spontaneous activity in diverse brain areas.

They found that even in different parts of the brain — such as those responsible for hearing, seeing and feeling touch — as well as in areas linked to thinking in both the front and back part of the brain, the activity in networks of brain cells showed a very similar organization during early development.

Researchers discovered that nerve cells in these areas work together in small, synchronized groups. These groups are part of bigger networks that cover millimeters in each part of the brain. 

“This type of organization has long been a hallmark of visual brain areas, but finding it in other regions — especially in non-sensory regions like the prefrontal cortex — was a surprise,” said Dr. Smith. 

Ongoing research will examine other brain regions at different stages of development to determine how the common blueprint identified in this study changes over time. 

Funding: Funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute [R01EY030893-01], Whitehall Foundation, National Science Foundation and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

About this neurodevelopment research news

Author: Alexandra Smith
Source: University of Minnesota
Contact: Alexandra Smith – University of Minnesota
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Common modular architecture across diverse cortical areas in early development” by Gordon Smith et al. PNAS


Common modular architecture across diverse cortical areas in early development

In order to deal with a complex environment, animals form a diverse range of neural representations that vary across cortical areas, ranging from largely unimodal sensory input to higher-order representations of goals, outcomes, and motivation.

The developmental origin of this diversity is currently unclear, as representations could arise through processes that are already area-specific from the earliest developmental stages or alternatively, they could emerge from an initially common functional organization shared across areas.

Here, we use spontaneous activity recorded with two-photon and widefield calcium imaging to reveal the functional organization across the early developing cortex in ferrets, a species with a well-characterized columnar organization and modular structure of spontaneous activity in the visual cortex.

We find that in animals 7 to 14 d prior to eye-opening and ear canal opening, spontaneous activity in both sensory areas (auditory and somatosensory cortex, A1 and S1, respectively), and association areas (posterior parietal and prefrontal cortex, PPC and PFC, respectively) showed an organized and modular structure that is highly similar to the organization in V1. In all cortical areas, this modular activity was distributed across the cortical surface, forming functional networks that exhibit millimeter-scale correlations.

Moreover, this modular structure was evident in highly coherent spontaneous activity at the cellular level, with strong correlations among local populations of neurons apparent in all cortical areas examined.

Together, our results demonstrate a common distributed and modular organization across the cortex during early development, suggesting that diverse cortical representations develop initially according to similar design principles.

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