Cerebral cortex expansion and folding: what have we learned?

EMBO J. 2016 May 17;35(10):1021-44. doi: 10.15252/embj.201593701. Epub 2016 Apr 7.


One of the most prominent features of the human brain is the fabulous size of the cerebral cortex and its intricate folding. Cortical folding takes place during embryonic development and is important to optimize the functional organization and wiring of the brain, as well as to allow fitting a large cortex in a limited cranial volume. Pathological alterations in size or folding of the human cortex lead to severe intellectual disability and intractable epilepsy. Hence, cortical expansion and folding are viewed as key processes in mammalian brain development and evolution, ultimately leading to increased intellectual performance and, eventually, to the emergence of human cognition. Here, we provide an overview and discuss some of the most significant advances in our understanding of cortical expansion and folding over the last decades. These include discoveries in multiple and diverse disciplines, from cellular and molecular mechanisms regulating cortical development and neurogenesis, genetic mechanisms defining the patterns of cortical folds, the biomechanics of cortical growth and buckling, lessons from human disease, and how genetic evolution steered cortical size and folding during mammalian evolution.

Keywords: evolution; ferret; gyrencephaly; humans; neocortex.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Cerebral Cortex / growth & development*
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Genetic Phenomena
  • Humans