Prefrontal Cortex - Definition


There are three possible ways to define the prefrontal cortex:

  • as the granular frontal cortex
  • as the projection zone of the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus
  • as that part of the frontal cortex whose electrical stimulation does not evoke movements

The prefrontal cortex has been defined based on cytoarchitectonics by the presence of a cortical granular layer IV. It is not entirely clear who first used this criterion. Many of the early cytoarchitectonic researchers restricted the use of the term prefrontal to a much smaller region of cortex including the gyrus rectus and the gyrus rostralis (Campbell, 1905; G. E. Smith, 1907; Brodmann, 1909; von Economo and Koskinas, 1925). In 1935, however, Jacobsen used the term prefrontal to distinguish granular prefrontal areas from agranular motor and premotor areas. In terms of Brodmann areas, the prefrontal cortex traditionally includes areas 8, 9, 10, 11, 44, 45, 46, and 47 (to complicate matters, not all of these areas are strictly granular—44 is dysgranular, caudal 11 and orbital 47 are agranular). The main problem with this definition is that it works well only in primates but not in nonprimates, as the latter lack a granular layer IV.

To define the prefrontal cortex as the projection zone of the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus builds on the work of Rose and Woolsey who showed that this nucleus projects to anterior and ventral parts of the brain in nonprimates. Rose and Woolsey however termed this projection zone "orbitofrontal." It seems to have been Akert, who in 1964 for the first time explicitly suggested that this criterion could be used to define homologues of the prefrontal cortex in primates and nonprimates. This allowed the establishment of homologies despite the lack of a granular frontal cortex in nonprimates. The projection zone definition is still widely accepted today (e.g. Fuster), although its usefulness has been questioned. Modern tract tracing studies have shown that projections of the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus are not restricted to the granular frontal cortex in primates. As a result, it was suggested to define the prefrontal cortex as the region of cortex that has stronger reciprocal connections with the mediodorsal nucleus than with any other thalamic nucleus. Uylings et al. acknowledge, however, that even with the application of this criterion it might be rather difficult to unequivocally define the prefrontal cortex.

A third definition of the prefrontal cortex is the area of frontal cortex whose electrical stimulation does not lead to observable movements. For example, in 1890 David Ferrier used the term in this sense. One complication with this definition is that the electrically "silent" frontal cortex includes both granular and non-granular areas.

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