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Evolution of Columns, Modules, and Domains in the Neocortex of Primates



The specialized regions of neocortex of mammals, called areas, have been divided into smaller functional units called minicolumns, columns, modules, and domains. Here we describe some of these functional subdivisions of areas in primates and suggest when they emerged in mammalian evolution. We distinguish several types of these smaller subdivisions. Minicolumns, vertical arrays of neurons that are more densely interconnected with each other than with laterally neighboring neurons, are present in all cortical areas. Classic columns are defined by a repeating pattern of two or more types of cortex distinguished by having different inputs and neurons with different response properties. Sensory stimuli that continuously vary along a stimulus dimension may activate groups of neurons that vary continuously in location, producing “columns” without specific boundaries. Other groups or columns of cortical neurons are separated by narrow septa of fibers that reflect discontinuities in the receptor sheet. Larger regions of posterior parietal cortex and frontal motor cortex are parts of networks devoted to producing different sequences of movements. We distinguish these larger functionally distinct regions as domains. Columns of several types have evolved independently a number of times. Some of the columns found in primates likely emerged with the first primates, whereas others likely were present in earlier ancestors. The sizes and shapes of columns seem to depend on the balance of neuron activation patterns and molecular signals during development.


Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37240-7817. E-mail:

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