Profound seasonal changes in brain size and architecture in the common shrew

Brain Struct Funct. 2018 Jul;223(6):2823-2840. doi: 10.1007/s00429-018-1666-5. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


The seasonal changes in brain size of some shrews represent the most drastic reversible transformation in the mammalian central nervous system known to date. Brain mass decreases 10-26% from summer to winter and regrows 9-16% in spring, but the underlying structural changes at the cellular level are not yet understood. Here, we describe the volumetric differences in brain structures between seasons and sexes of the common shrew (Sorex araneus) in detail, confirming that changes in different brain regions vary in the magnitude of change. Notably, shrews show a decrease in hypothalamus, thalamus, and hippocampal volume and later regrowth in spring, whereas neocortex and striatum volumes decrease in winter and do not recover in size. For some regions, males and females showed different patterns of seasonal change from each other. We also analyzed the underlying changes in neuron morphology. We observed a general decrease in soma size and total dendrite volume in the caudoputamen and anterior cingulate cortex. This neuronal retraction may partially explain the overall tissue shrinkage in winter. While not sufficient to explain the entire seasonal process, it represents a first step toward understanding the mechanisms beneath this remarkable phenomenon.

Keywords: Brain anatomy; Brain mass; Dehnel’s phenomenon; Dendritic plasticity; Neuron atrophy; Tissue regeneration.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Female
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / ultrastructure
  • Neurons / classification
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Seasons*
  • Sex Factors
  • Shrews / anatomy & histology*
  • Silver Staining