The formation of folds on the surface of the brain

May 5, 2017
Without adhesion molecules of the FLRT receptor family, the normally smooth mouse cortex, forms folds, which correspond to the structure of the human brain. The neurons shown in this image are stained to mark the corresponding brain layers – green for the outer layer and red for the deeper layers. The other cells are blue. Credit: MPI of Neurobiology, del Toro, Cederfjäll

Folds in the human brain enlarge the surface of this important processing organ and in this way create more space for higher functions including thought and action. However, certain species of mammals exist whose brains have smooth surfaces, for example mice. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried have discovered a previously unknown mechanism for brain folding. Young neurons, which migrate to the cortex during the development of a smooth-surfaced brain, have so-called FLRT receptors on their cell surface. These ensure a certain degree of adhesion between the cells and regular migratory behaviour which favours the formation of a smooth brain surface. Compared to the mouse brain, in the human brain FLRTs are much less abundant. If the expression of FLRTs in the mouse brain is reduced experimentally, folds similar to those found in the human brain form. These findings provide new insights into the evolution of smooth and folded mammalian brains.

The has many grooves and furrows which enlarge the brain surface considerably compared to that of a smooth brain. Homo sapiens is not the only species to form folds in the brain, however. It is likely that the ancestral mammal, which lived around 200 million years ago, also had a folded brain. Over the course of evolution, various mammalian species lost their brain folds again. Hence mice and rats, for example, have brains with smooth surfaces.

"The evolutionary success of these and other animal species with smooth brains shows that having a brain without folds is not necessarily disadvantageous and works well for these species," explains Rüdiger Klein, a Director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology. "We were interested in how brain folds actually arise." Up to now, scientists have shown that in folded brains, there is an expansion of progenitor cells producing a larger number of young that migrate to the outer layer of the cortex during development. Hence this cellular layer becomes crowded with cells. Several mechanisms such as the rigid cranial bone prevents the cortex from simply expanding like a balloon and thus it is forced to fold to accommodate the excess cells. Studies on mice with an artificially elevated number of progenitor cells showed that this process per se is not sufficient to cause folds in the cortex, because in some cases these animals have a thicker cortex but it remains smooth. "So there must be something else that prevents the brain from folding in mice," says Klein, explaining the starting point of the study.

In the developing mouse brain, the young neurons migrate in a homogeneous and orderly fashion to the outer area of the brain where they line up to form regular and smooth outer layers. In a previous study, Rüdiger Klein and his research team succeeded in showing that the FLRT3 molecule (pronounced flirt-3) causes the migrating neurons to adhere to each other and thus supports ordered movement. "So it made sense to assume that FLRTs might play a role in the different types of cell migration in folded and smooth brains," says Klein. As part of their study, the researchers examined mice whose precursor cells had neither FLRT3 nor the related FLRT1 receptors. Despite the fact that there was no change in the number of precursor cells, these animals developed brains with obvious folds.

Absence of receptors promotes brain folds

A combination of laboratory tests and computer simulations showed how the developed its folds. Due to the absence of FLRT1/3 receptors, the migrating young neurons did not adhere to each other as strongly as before. "In this way, repellent mechanisms in the neighbouring probably gained the upper hand and forced the neurons to cluster into groups," explains Daniel del Toro, one of the two first authors of the study. Within these cell clusters, the neurons were able to move more freely and, as a result, they were also able to migrate faster to the outer layers of the brain. Due to this altered migratory behaviour, the neurons arrived too early in the cortex and no longer distributed regularly. The scientists assume that the resulting crowding in the upper cell layer increased the pressure in this layer, and this was alleviated through the formation of folds. "The missing attraction forces between the neurons made the cortex softer and more malleable, and this probably benefitted the formation of folds as well," adds Tobias Ruff, co-first author of the study.

With this study the scientists demonstrated for the first time that adhesion of migrating neurons has a crucial impact on brain folding and that FLRT receptors play a crucial role in this process. Together with their Spanish colleagues from the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, Spain, the Max Planck researchers were able to demonstrate that the number of FLRT1/3 receptors in humans and ferrets, both species with folded brains, is considerably lower than in mice which have smooth brains. "Therefore it is likely that FLRTs also influence the formation of folds in our brains," says Rüdiger Klein. These findings provide a starting point for further studies on normal and pathological folding of the mammalian .

Explore further: How even our brains get 'slacker' as we age

More information: Daniel del Toro et al. Regulation of Cerebral Cortex Folding by Controlling Neuronal Migration via FLRT Adhesion Molecules, Cell (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.04.012

Related Stories

How even our brains get 'slacker' as we age

October 24, 2016
New research from Newcastle University, UK, in collaboration with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, investigated the way the human brain folds and how this 'cortical folding' changes with age.

How the brain folds to fit

April 26, 2013
During fetal development of the mammalian brain, the cerebral cortex undergoes a marked expansion in surface area in some species, which is accommodated by folding of the tissue in species with most expanded neuron numbers ...

Brain folding related to surface area and thickness, not number of neurons

July 3, 2015
(Medical Xpress)—A pair of researchers with Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro has found that the degree of folding of mammalian brains follows a simple mathematical relationship. In their paper published in the journal ...

Conversion of brain cells offers hope for Parkinson's patients

April 11, 2017
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have made significant progress in the search for new treatments for Parkinson's disease. By manipulating the gene expression of non-neuronal cells in the brain, they were able to produce ...

CD38 gene is identified to be important in postnatal development of the cerebral cortex

April 7, 2017
The brain consists of neurons and glial cells. The developmental abnormality of glial cells causes various diseases and aberrant cerebral cortex development. CD38 gene knockout is shown to cause aberrant development of glial ...

Recommended for you

Touching helps build the sexual brain

September 21, 2017
Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the onset of puberty? It seems that when rats are touched on their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. In a new study publishing September 21 ...

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

Your neurons register familiar faces, whether you notice them or not

September 21, 2017
When people see an image of a person they recognize—the famous tennis player Roger Federer or actress Halle Berry, for instance—particular cells light up in the brain. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on ...

Highly precise wiring in the cerebral cortex

September 21, 2017
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the cerebral cortex of mammals, where, among other things, vision, thoughts or spatial ...

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

thingumbobesquire
not rated yet May 07, 2017
If one were to perform a normal conformal mapping of the surface of the human brain to a Gaussian unit sphere, there would be the equivalent of a Riemannian surface function that has a multiplex sheath of sheets. This mapping is on the complex mathematical domain and counts every bit as much for the human brain's quality as the intricate axonal branching that supposedly carry "information." Whatever that is...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.