Postnatal development of excitatory and inhibitory prefrontal cortical circuits and their disruption in autism
Trutzer, Iris Margalit
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The prefrontal cortices, in particular lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), have been implicated in top-down control of attention switching and behavioral flexibility. These cortices and their networks are disrupted in autism, a condition in which diverse behaviors such as social communication and attention control are dysregulated. However, little is known about the typical development of these cortical areas or the ways in which this process is altered in neurodevelopmental disorders. In order to identify changes that could affect the local processing of signals transmitted by the short-range pathways connecting the ACC and LPFC I assessed developmental changes in the distinct cortical layers, which send and receive different pathways and have unique inhibitory microenvironments that dictate excitatory-inhibitory balance. Normative developmental trends were compared with those seen in individuals with autism to identify changes that may contribute to symptoms of attention dysfunction. Unbiased quantitative methods were used to study overall neuron density, the density of inhibitory neurons labeled by the calcium-binding proteins calbindin (CB), calretinin (CR), and parvalbumin (PV), and the density, size, and trajectory of myelinated axons in the individual cortical layers in children and adults with and without a diagnosis of autism. There was a reduction in neuron density and an increase in the density of myelinated axons in both areas during neurotypical development. Axons in layers 1-3 of LPFC were disorganized in autism, with increased variability in the trajectory of axons in children and a decrease in the proportion of thin axons in adults. These findings were most significant in layer 1, the ultimate feedback-receiving layer in the cortex. While there were no differences in neuron populations between cohorts in children, in adults with autism there was a significant reduction in the density of CR-expressing neurons in LPFC layers 2-6 and a significant increase in the density of PV-expressing neurons in ACC layers 5-6. In autism, these findings suggest that dysregulation of the normal development of axonal networks, seen in children, may induce compensatory developmental changes in cell and axon populations in adults that could be connected to attention dysregulation.