A hypothesis for the evolution of the upper layers of the neocortex through co-option of the olfactory cortex developmental program.
The neocortex is unique to mammals and its evolutionary origin is still highly debated. The neocortex is generated by the dorsal pallium ventricular zone, a germinative domain that in reptiles give rise to the dorsal cortex. Whether this latter allocortical structure contains homologs of all neocortical cell types it is unclear. Recently we described a population of DCX+/Tbr1+ cells that is specifically associated with the layer II of higher order areas of both the neocortex and of the more evolutionary conserved piriform cortex. In a reptile similar cells are present in the layer II of the olfactory cortex and the DVR but not in the dorsal cortex. These data are consistent with the proposal that the reptilian dorsal cortex is homologous only to the deep layers of the neocortex while the upper layers are a mammalian innovation. Based on our observations we extended these ideas by hypothesizing that this innovation was obtained by co-opting a lateral and/or ventral pallium developmental program. Interestingly, an analysis in the Allen brain atlas revealed a striking similarity in gene expression between neocortical layers II/III and piriform cortex. We thus propose a model in which the early neocortical column originated by the superposition of the lateral olfactory and dorsal cortex. This model is consistent with the fossil record and may account not only for the topological position of the neocortex, but also for its basic cytoarchitectural and hodological features. This idea is also consistent with previous hypotheses that the peri-allocortex represents the more ancient neocortical part. The great advances in deciphering the molecular logic of the amniote pallium developmental programs will hopefully enable to directly test our hypotheses in the next future.