The formation of folds on the surface of the brain

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 human brain 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.”

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