A team of researchers from the Department of Psychology has, for the first time, mapped the development over time of the neocortex in mouse brains, a critical step in understanding the development of sensory and motor regions of the human brain.

That research appears in two papers by Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology, post-doctoral fellow Catherine Dye and graduate student Hani El Shawa published and featured on the front cover in the June issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex, a publication of Oxford University Press.

The neocortex region of the mammalian brain is similar in mice and humans, Huffman explained, although human processing is more complex.

Huffman’s team conducted a lifespan analysis of the development of intraneocortical connections (INCs) among multiple sensory and motor regions of the neocortex in mice from the embryonic stage to adulthood, and created what amounts to an atlas of the neocortex, identifying the development of regions and structures in the neocortex at numerous points of time.

“People in the field of developmental neurobiology refer to certain genes expressed in the neocortex as ‘markers’ for neocortical areas, without actually correlating their expression and area boundaries. This is exactly what we did in these two large papers,” she said.

The project showed the progression of INC development in four areas, and used INCs to illustrate development of area boundaries to see if development of specific areas correlated with gene expression, which genes, and how that changes over time.

The research is foundational to understanding behavioral disorders such as autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, where abnormal networking in the neocortex may be implicated.

“Before we understand how these connections and areas go awry during development, as they do in the abnormal brain, we must first understand how normal development occurs,” Huffman said. “Looking into normal brain development helps us understand the mechanisms that underlie the formation of a complex network that allows us to behave and think like humans. It’s thought that disruption of the complex neocortical system may underlie different mental health syndromes and disorders.”

Huffman’s research was funded by $150,000 in grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health.