Human cortex development: estimates of neuronal numbers indicate major loss late during gestation

J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Mar;55(3):320-8.


This morphometric study explores temporal and topographic changes in the estimated neuronal number in human neocortex during the latter half of gestation and early infancy. Neuronal estimates are calculated from standardized measurements of cortical layer thickness and neuronal density in 6 neocortical regions in 9 human brains ranging from 17 weeks of gestation to 13 weeks postnatally. Layer thickness increases linearly with age while the average neuronal density first increases, then reaches a maximum at 20 weeks of gestation, and progressively declines. The sum of layer thickness times layer density estimates the number of neurons in a cortical column with a fixed surface area and a length that is equal to the cortical thickness. To derive an estimate of potentially overproduced neurons, the number of neurons in each cortical column was corrected for surface growth and for cortex gyration. These data show that a large percent of cortical neurons present at 20 weeks of gestation are used to populate the expanding cortex. Nevertheless, the growth-corrected data suggest that a substantial overproduction and secondary reduction of cortical neurons takes place mainly during the last quarter of gestation. The corrected mean number of neurons reaches a maximum at 28 weeks of gestation and then declines by approximately 70% to achieve a stable number of neurons around birth. This estimated number of neurons is significantly higher at 28 to 32 weeks of gestation than at 17 to 20 gestational weeks and at 0 to 13 postnatal weeks. These data imply that physiologic neuronal death (apoptosis) may play a major role in early human cortex development.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Apoptosis
  • Cell Count
  • Cerebral Cortex / growth & development*
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Linear Models
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*