The cortical column: a structure without a function

Jonathan C Horton, Daniel L Adams

Abstract

This year, the field of neuroscience celebrates the 50th anniversary of Mountcastle's discovery of the cortical column. In this review, we summarize half a century of research and come to the disappointing realization that the column may have no function. Originally, it was described as a discrete structure, spanning the layers of the somatosensory cortex, which contains cells responsive to only a single modality, such as deep joint receptors or cutaneous receptors. Subsequently, examples of columns have been uncovered in numerous cortical areas, expanding the original concept to embrace a variety of different structures and principles. A ‘column’ now refers to cells in any vertical cluster that share the same tuning for any given receptive field attribute. In striate cortex, for example, cells with the same eye preference are grouped into ocular dominance columns. Unaccountably, ocular dominance columns are present in some species, but not others. In principle, it should be possible to determine their function by searching for species differences in visual performance that correlate with their presence or absence. Unfortunately, this approach has been to no avail; no visual faculty has emerged that appears to require ocular dominance columns. Moreover, recent evidence has shown that the expression of ocular dominance columns can be highly variable among members of the same species, or even in different portions of the visual cortex in the same individual. These observations deal a fatal blow to the idea that ocular dominance columns serve a purpose. More broadly, the term ‘column’ also denotes the periodic termination of anatomical projections within or between cortical areas. In many instances, periodic projections have a consistent relationship with some architectural feature, such as the cytochrome oxidase patches in V1 or the stripes in V2. These tissue compartments appear to divide cells with different receptive field properties into distinct processing streams. However, it is unclear what advantage, if any, is conveyed by this form of columnar segregation. Although the column is an attractive concept, it has failed as a unifying principle for understanding cortical function. Unravelling the organization of the cerebral cortex will require a painstaking description of the circuits, projections and response properties peculiar to cells in each of its various areas.

Footnotes

  • One contribution of 12 to a Theme Issue ‘Cerebral cartography 1905–2005’.

  • Glossary

    CO
    cytochrome oxidase
    LGN
    lateral geniculate nucleus
    MT
    middle temporal area
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