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Evolution of the basal ganglia: new perspectives through a comparative approach



The basal ganglia (BG) have received much attention during the last 3 decades mainly because of their clinical relevance. Our understanding of their structure, organisation and function in terms of chemoarchitecture, compartmentalisation, connections and receptor localisation has increased equally. Most of the research has been focused on the mammalian BG, but a considerable number of studies have been carried out in nonmammalian vertebrates, in particular reptiles and birds. The BG of the latter 2 classes of vertebrates, which together with mammals constitute the amniotic vertebrates, have been thoroughly studied by means of tract-tracing and immunohistochemical techniques. The terminology used for amniotic BG structures has frequently been adopted to indicate putative corresponding structures in the brain of anamniotes, i.e. amphibians and fishes, but data for such a comparison were, until recently, almost totally lacking. It has been proposed several times that the occurrence of well developed BG structures probably constitutes a landmark in the anamniote-amniote transition. However, our recent studies of connections, chemoarchitecture and development of the basal forebrain of amphibians have revealed that tetrapod vertebrates share a common pattern of BG organisation. This pattern includes the existence of dorsal and ventral striatopallidal systems, reciprocal connections between the striatopallidal complex and the diencephalic and mesencephalic basal plate (striatonigral and nigrostriatal projections), and descending pathways from the striatopallidal system to the midbrain tectum and reticular formation. The connectional similarities are paralleled by similarities in the distribution of chemical markers of striatal and pallidal structures such as dopamine, substance P and enkephalin, as well as by similarities in development and expression of homeobox genes. On the other hand, a major evolutionary trend is the progressive involvement of the cortex in the processing of the thalamic sensory information relayed to the BG of tetrapods. By using the comparative approach, new insights have been gained with respect to certain features of the BG of vertebrates in general, such as the segmental organisation of the midbrain dopaminergic cell groups, the occurrence of large numbers of dopaminergic cell bodies within the telencephalon itself and the variability in, among others, connectivity and chemoarchitecture. However, the intriguing question whether the basal forebrain organisation of nontetrapods differs essentially from that observed in tetrapods still needs to be answered.


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dr Wilhelmus J. A. J. Smeets, Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, van der Boechorststraat 7, 1081 BT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Tel.: +(31) 20 444 8039; fax: +(31) 20 444 8054; e-mail:


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Evolution of the basal ganglia: new perspectives through a comparative approach



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