Scientists at Harvard Medical School have cleared up some of the mystery surrounding a key structure in the developing brain that helps form the visual circuits. Their findings, which appear in the July 25 issue of Science, could provide new insight into early brain defects that are linked to conditions like cerebral palsy and learning disabilities.
During development, nerve cells in the eye send messages to the thalamus, a region located deep within the brain. The thalamus then passes these messages on to the area of the outer cerebral cortex that deals with vision. The connection between the thalamus and cortex initially passes through a transient and seldom studied structure called the subplate. By removing parts of the subplate in cats, the HMS researchers have shown that this structure is a key component in strengthening the thalamus to cortex connection and in mapping out further cortical wiring patterns important for vision.
The subplate neurons are acting "kind of like teachers," says senior author Carla Shatz, the Nathan Marsh Pusey professor of neurobiology and head of the HMS Department of Neurobiology. "Theyre needed for the thalamic connections to strengthen and grow so that they can become strong enough to talk to the cortical neurons."
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