Exencephaly, Pseudocephaly, and Anencephaly

In exencephaly, the brain is formed without the brain casing - the cranium. It is generally missing the forebrain (the prefrontal lobe), but is otherwise mostly formed. Despite this, the spinal cord is rarely formed with the brain, as there is a disconnect between the telencephalon and the hindbrain during very early development, and only the midbrain is formed.

In pseudoencephaly (a term rarely used in medicine nowadays), the midbrain and spinal cord are formed, but the forebrain is not.

In anencephaly, the most common of the three conditions, the brain and spinal cord are only tiny specs of what they should be. Curiously, despite them being a literal extension of the brain, the eyeballs sometimes fully form, though with no receptors to process the information they receive, even if the fetus were to survive, they would not see anything.

Human Monstrosities, Part IV. Barton Cooke Hirst and George A. Piersol, 1893.

Visualizing a memory trace

Whole brain imaging of zebrafish reveals neuronal networks involved in retrieving long-term memories during decision making

In mammals, a neural pathway called the cortico-basal ganglia circuit is thought to play an important role in the choice of behaviors. However, where and how behavioral programs are written, stored and read out as a memory within this circuit remains unclear. A research team led by Hitoshi Okamoto and Tazu Aoki of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute has for the first time visualized in zebrafish the neuronal activity associated with the retrieval of long-term memories during decision making.

The team performed experiments on genetically engineered zebrafish expressing a fluorescent protein that changes its intensity when it binds to calcium ions in neurons and thereby acts as an indicator of neuronal activity. “Neurons in the fish cortical region form a neural circuit similar to the mammalian cortico-basal ganglia circuit,” says Okamoto.

The fish were trained on an avoidance task by placing individual fish into a two-compartment tank and shining a red light for several seconds into the compartment containing the fish. If the fish did not move into the other compartment in response to the light, it was ‘punished’ with a mild electric shock. After several repetitions, the fish learned to avoid the shock by switching compartments as soon as the light came on. 

The researchers then examined the neuronal activity of the fish under the microscope in response to exposure to red light. One day after the learning task, the fish showed specific activity in a discrete region of the telencephalon, which corresponds to the cerebral cortex in mammals, when presented with the red light. However, just 30 minutes after the learning task no activity was observed in this part of the brain. The results suggest that this telencephalonic area encodes the long-term memory for the learned avoidance behavior. Confirming this, removing this part of the telencephalon abolished the long-term memory but did not affect learning or short-term storage of the memory. 

In humans, the ability to choose the correct behavioral programs in response to environmental changes is indispensable for everyday life, and the ability to do so is thought to be impaired in various psychiatric conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. 

“Combining the neural imaging technique with genetics, we will be able to investigate how neurons in the cortico-basal ganglia circuit choose the most suitable behavior in any given situation,” says Okamoto. “Our findings open the way to investigate and understand how these symptoms appear in human psychiatric disorders.”


Consists of:

  • Cerebral cortex- Frontal, Parietal, Occipital, temporal lobes.
  • Rhinencephalon- oldest part of fore brain with olfactory and non-olfactory components. Deals with short term memory and emotion.
  • Basal ganglia- deeper grey matter such as the caudate nucleus. Involved in movement and locomotion.
  • Limbic system- llimbic lobe +  Subcortical nuclei. Is involved in maintaining normal behavior.

Pathway Competition Affects Early Differentiation of Higher Brain Structures

Sand-dwelling and rock-dwelling cichlids living in East Africa’s Lake Malawi share a nearly identical genome, but have very different personalities. The territorial rock-dwellers live in communities where social interactions are important, while the sand-dwellers are itinerant and less aggressive.

Those behavioral differences likely arise from a complex region of the brain known as the telencephalon, which governs communication, emotion, movement and memory in vertebrates – including humans, where a major portion of the telencephalon is known as the cerebral cortex. A study published this week in the journal Nature Communications shows how the strength and timing of competing molecular signals during brain development has generated natural and presumably adaptive differences in the telencephalon much earlier than scientists had previously believed.

In the study, researchers first identified key differences in gene expression between rock- and sand-dweller brains during development, and then used small molecules to manipulate developmental pathways to mimic natural diversity.

“We have shown that the evolutionary changes in the brains of these fishes occur really early in development,” said Todd Streelman, an associate professor in the School of Biology and the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s generally been thought that early development of the brain must be strongly buffered against change. Our data suggest that rock-dweller brains differ from sand-dweller brains – before there is a brain.”

For humans, the research could lead scientists to look for subtle changes in brain structures earlier in the development process. This could provide a better understanding of how disorders such as autism and schizophrenia could arise during very early brain development.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and published online April 23 by the journal.

“We want to understand how the telencephalon evolves by looking at genetics and developmental pathways in closely-related species from natural populations,” said Jonathan Sylvester, a postdoctoral researcher in the Georgia Tech School of Biology and lead author of the paper. “Adult cichlids have a tremendous amount of variation within the telencephalon, and we investigated the timing and cause of these differences. Unlike many previous studies in laboratory model organisms that focus on large, qualitative effects from knocking out single genes, we demonstrated that brain diversity evolves through quantitative tuning of multiple pathways.”

In examining the fish from embryos to adulthood, the researchers found that the mbuna, or rock-dwellers, tended to exhibit a larger ventral portion of the telencephalon, called the subpallium – while the sand-dwellers tended to have a larger version of the dorsal structure known as the pallium. These structures seem to have evolved differently over time to meet the behavioral and ecological needs of the fishes. The team showed that early variation in the activity of developmental signals expressed as complementary dorsal-ventral gradients, known technically as “Wingless” and “Hedgehog,” are involved in creating those differences during the neural plate stage, as a single sheet of neural tissue folds to form the neural tube.

To specifically manipulate those two pathways, Sylvester removed clutches of between 20 and 40 eggs from brooding female cichlids, which normally incubate fertilized eggs in their mouths. At about 36 to 48 hours after fertilization, groups of eggs were exposed to small-molecule chemicals that either strengthened or weakened the Hedgehog signal, or strengthened or weakened the Wingless signal. The chemical treatment came while the structures that would become the brain were little more than a sheet of cells. After treatment, water containing the chemicals was replaced with fresh water, and the embryos were allowed to continue their development.

“We were able to artificially manipulate these pathways in a way that we think evolution might have worked to shift the process of rock-dweller telencephalon development to sand-dweller development, and vice-versa. Treatment with small molecules allows us incredible temporal and dose precision in manipulating natural development,” Sylvester explained. “We then followed the development of the embryos until we were able to measure the anatomical structures – the size of the pallium and subpallium – to see that we had transformed one to the other.”

The two different brain regions, the dorsal pallium and ventral subpallium, give rise to excitatory and inhibitory neurons in the forebrain. Altering the relative sizes of these regions might change the balance between these neuronal types, ultimately producing behavioral changes in the adult fish.

“Evolution has fine-tuned some of these developmental mechanisms to produce diversity,” Streelman said. “In this study, we have figured out which ones.”

The researchers studied six different species of East African cichlids, and also worked with collaborators at King’s College in London to apply similar techniques in the zebrafish.

As a next step, the researchers would like to follow the embryos through to adulthood to see if the changes seen in embryonic and juvenile brain structures actually do change behavior of adults. It’s possible, said Streelman, that later developmental events could compensate for the early differences.

The results could be of interest to scientists investigating human neurological disorders that result from an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurons. Those disorders include autism and schizophrenia. “We think it is particularly interesting that there may be some adaptive variation in the natural proportions of excitatory versus inhibitory neurons in the species we study, correlated with their natural behavioral differences,” said Streelman.