- The cerebral cortex is the structure that gives the organ its convoluted surface. It is involved with high-level processing of our perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions.
- Intricate folding permits the expansive cortex to fit inside a skull with limited surface area.
- Recent discoveries have shown that mechanical tension between neurons creates the hills and valleys of the cortex.
- The cortical landscape differs between healthy people and individuals with brain disorders that originate during development, such as autism. These shape differences suggest that connections between brain regions of affected individuals also depart from the norm.
One of the first things people notice about the human brain is its intricate landscape of hills and valleys. These convolutions derive from the cerebral cortex, a two- to four-millimeter-thick mantle of gelatinous tissue packed with neurons sometimes called gray matter that mediates our perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions. Other large-brained mammals such as whales, dogs and our great ape cousins have a corrugated cortex, too each with its own characteristic pattern of convolutions. But small-brained mammals and other vertebrates have relatively smooth brains. The cortex of large-brained mammals expanded considerably over the course of evolution much more so than the skull. Indeed, the surface area of a flattened human cortex equivalent to that of an extra-large pizza is three times larger than the inner surface of the braincase. Thus, the only way the cortex of humans and other brainy species can fit into the skull is by folding.
This folding is not random, as in a crumpled piece of paper. Rather it exhibits a pattern that is consistent from person to person. How does this folding occur in the first place? And what, if anything, can the resulting topography reveal about brain function? New research indicates that a network of nerve fibers physically pulls the pliable cortex into shape during development and holds it in place throughout life. Disturbances to this network during development or later, as a result of a stroke or injury, can have far-reaching consequences for brain shape and neural communication. These discoveries could therefore lead to new strategies for diagnosing and treating patients with certain mental disorders.