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Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2016 Feb;42(2):115-34. doi: 10.1111/nan.12227. Epub 2015 May 2.

Review: Cortical construction in autism spectrum disorder: columns, connectivity and the subplate.

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Department of Psychology, Program in Neuroscience, University of Nevada, Reno, USA.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, University of Louisville School of Medicine, Louisville, USA.


The cerebral cortex undergoes protracted maturation during human development and exemplifies how biology and environment are inextricably intertwined in the construction of complex neural circuits. Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by a number of pathological changes arising from this developmental process. These include: (i) alterations to columnar structure that have significant implications for the organization of cortical circuits and connectivity; (ii) alterations to synaptic spines on individual cortical units that may underlie specific types of connectional changes; and (iii) alterations within the cortical subplate, a region that plays a role in proper cortical development and in regulating interregional communication in the mature brain. Although the cerebral cortex is not the only structure affected in the disorder, it is a fundamental contributor to the behaviours that characterize autism. These alterations to cortical circuitry likely underlie the behavioural phenotype in autism and contribute to the unique pattern of deficits and strengths that characterize cognitive functioning. Recent findings within the cortical subplate may indicate that alterations to cortical construction begin prenatally, before activity-dependent connections are established, and are in need of further study. A better understanding of cortical development in autism spectrum disorders will draw bridges between the microanatomical computational circuitry and the atypical behaviours that arise when that circuitry is modified. In addition, it will allow us to better exploit the constructional plasticity within the brain to design more targeted interventions that better manage atypical cortical construction and that can be applied very early in postnatal life.


cerebral cortex; neurodevelopment; neuropathology; prenatal

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