Category Archives: Anatomy

Eye-brain spatial relationship

We have just published a new study on the spatial relationship between visual and endocranial structures in adult modern humans, chimpanzees, and fossil humans. The survey was conducted in collaboration with Michael Masters from Montana Tech (USA), who previously hypothesized that, in modern humans, the positioning of the orbits below the frontal lobes coupled with a reduced face could result in spatial conflict among ocular, cerebral, and craniofacial structures. This could lead to vision problems, such as myopia. In addition, another study evidenced that eye and orbit dimensions have a stronger correlation with the frontal lobes, rather than with the occipital lobes, indicating that the ocular structures can be more constrained by spatial (physical) than by functional (vision) relationships. In this study we used geometric morphometrics to investigate the longitudinal (antero-posterior) spatial relationships between orbito-ocular and endocranial structures. First, we addressed the the position of the eye relatively to the frontal and temporal cortex, on a sample of 63 modern humans’ MRIs. Second, we addressed the spatial relationship between orbital and endocranial structures on a CT sample comprising 30 modern humans, 3 chimpanzees, and 3 fossil humans (Bodo, Broken Hill 1, Gibraltar 1).

The results of the MRI analysis show that in adult modern humans the main pattern of shape variation deals with the antero-posterior position of the eye relative to the temporal lobes. Individuals which eyes are closer to the temporal lobes exhibit rounder frontal outline and antero-posterior shorter eyes, indicating a possible physical constraint associated with the spatial contiguity between the eye and the middle cranial fossa. A second pattern describes the supero-inferior position of the eye, relatively to the frontal lobe. Also in this case, proximity is apparently associated with slight changes in eye form. Individuals with larger volumes of the frontal and temporal lobes tend to have eyes located more posteriorly, closer to the temporal lobe, although with no apparent change in the shape of the eye. These results partially support Master’s hypothesis, suggesting reciprocal spatial patterns influencing brain and eye form.

When analyzing orbits and braincase through CT data, the main intra-specific variation among modern humans concerns the orientation of the orbit, not the position. Nonetheless, analyzing humans, apes, and fossil hominids all together, the main differences deal with the distance between orbits and braincase: they are separated in chimps, overlapped in modern humans, and in intermediate position in fossils. In this case, fossils belong to the hypodigm of Homo heidelbergensis. Modern humans are characterized by larger temporal lobes when compared with other living primates, and longer middle cranial fossa. The proximity with the eyeballs due to face reduction can stress further a morphogenetic spatial conflict between orbits and brain. Next step: 3D analyses, ontogenetic series, and vision impairment.

Sofia Pedro


Hominin biomechanics


Hominin biomechanics

Virtual anatomy and inner structural morphology,
from head to toe
A tribute to Laurent Puymerail

Comptes Rendus Palevol 16 (2017)



Vessels and neurosurgery

obrMagnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) methods has a primary use in medicine, especially in diagnosis and image-guided surgery. In neuroscience, attention is mainly focused on the brain, and vessels are not always a target of the imaging procedures. The crucial aspect of using imaging during surgery concerns the correspondence with the real physical structures. This correspondence is affected by a displacement of the brain during surgery called brain shift, which can result in 5 – 10 mm difference from the MRI data. Several technical procedures are used in order to avoid this mismatch. Since intraoperative MRI devices are not always available, using local markers for orientation and navigation could be a plausible alternative. In a recent paper, Grabner and colleagues suggest to use the system of veins on the surface of the cerebral cortex as reference landmarks. These veins are well visible during the surgery, and can potentially improve navigation. The study is focused on developing a non-invasive MRI technique for the visualization of the superficial cortical veins and validation of that method by comparing MR images with high resolution photographs of human cadavers.

Considering Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA), the main concern of using this method is the use of a contrast agent, and the possibility of overlooking the superficial cortical veins because of the slow blood flow. Alternatively, the authors suggest to use Susceptibility-Weighted Imaging (SWI), which is a blood-oxygen-level dependent technique of MRI with an ability to image vessels smaller than a voxel. Gradient-echo based T2-weighted imaging was performed in this study using a 7 Tesla MRI scanner. Image processing relied on automated vessel segmentation and overlaid on anatomical MRI. The results showed high correlation between segmented veins in MRI and actual venous anatomy of the sample, and therefore surface venograms could serve as alternative navigation system for neurosurgery.

Reliable methods of imaging and segmentation of vessels are valuable also in theoretical fields, where those methods could contribute to the investigation of the function of the endocranial venous system. The importance of the veins is usually estimated according to their size, although functional information on these vessels is still scanty, and methodological research to improve craniovascular studies can be beneficial in both anthropology and medicine.

Stáňa Eisová

Microgravity and sensorimotor function

Space missions can have adverse effects on astronauts, such as the already-mentioned vision deterioration and cognitive impairment. Spending a long time on space can also impact sensorimotor function. Koppelmans et al. have recently investigated the influence of microgravity environment on sensorimotor performance and brain structure. They conducted a longitudinal study with a group of male subjects remaining in a 6-degrees head down tilt bed rest (HDBR) position, an analog environment to study the effects of spaceflight microgravity, during 70 days. MR images were collected before, during, and after HDBR, to explore changes in gray matter (GM) volume, and functional mobility and postural equilibrium tests were conducted pre- and post-HDBR, to check sensorimotor performance. For control, they used data from other subjects who had completed the same measurements at four different times over 90 days for another study, not being exposed to HDBR. Relative to controls, the HDBR subjects showed widespread changes in GM volume, as the percent of brain volume, from pre- to the last assessment during HDBR. More specifically, GM volume increased in the posterior parietal region and decreased in the fronto-temporal regions, and these changes are strongly correlated. The sensorimotor performance was decreased in HDBR subjects from pre- to post-HDBR, as they needed more time to complete the test, while controls showed no difference in performance. Following the HDBR period, both GM volume and sensorimotor changes started to recover, though not totally 12 days later. Regarding the association between brain and behavior, researchers found that larger increases in GM volume in precuneus and pre- and postcentral gyri correlated with better balance performance, though not significantly after Bonferroni correction. They propose these changes in GM volume might reflect cortical plasticity as an adaptive response to alterations in somatosensory input caused by HDBR position. The observed patterns of GM change could also be explained by alterations in intracranial fluids distribution and pressure due to posture, though this hypothesis would need further examination. The authors conclude their findings match the sensorimotor deterioration observed in astronauts, but are also of interest for individuals who are temporarily or permanently confined to a bed and will probably experience the same GM and sensorimotor alterations.

Sofia Pedro

Cortical and scalp development

In a recent study, Tsuzuki and colleagues analysed the co-development of the brain and head surfaces during the first two years of life using a sample of 16 infant MRIs, aged from 3 to 22 months. First, they digitized a set of cortical landmarks defined by the major sulci. Then they determined the position of cranial landmarks according to the 10-10 system, a standard method to place electrodes for electroencephalography, using  nasion, inion, and the pre-auriculars as a reference. Besides analysing the spatial variability of the cortical and scalp landmarks with age, they compared the variability of the cortical landmarks to the 10-10 positions, in order to evaluate the validity of the scalp system as a reference for brain development. For that, they transferred a given cortical landmark to the head surface by expressing its position as a composition of vectors in reference to the midpoint between the two pre-auriculars and to the three neighbor 10-10 points. The scalp-transferred landmarks were then transformed to the scalp template of a 12-month-old infant and depicted in reference to the 10-10 system.

Age-related changes in the cortical landmarks were most obvious in the prefrontal and parietal regions. As the brain elongates, the frontal lobe shifts anteriorly and the precentral gyri widen. In addition, the intraparietal sulci and the posterior part of the left Sylvian fissure move forward, suggesting relative enlargement of the parietal region in the anterior direction. The same result was obtained by our team by analyzing cranial and brain landmarks in adults: larger brain size is associated with a relative forward position of the parietal lobe. The scalp showed relative anteroposterior elongation and lateral narrowing with growth. Regarding the contrast between the cortical landmarks and the 10-10 system, the authors observed that the variability in the position of the former was much smaller than the area defined by 10-10 landmarks, indicating this system can be useful to predict the underlying cortical structures. Hence, they conclude that the changes in brain shape during development are well described by cortical landmarks and that the relative scalp positioning based on the 10-10 system can adjust to preserve the correspondence between the scalp and the cortical surfaces.


Sofia Pedro

What the brain’s wiring looks like

The world’s most detailed scan of the brain’s internal wiring has been produced by scientists at Cardiff University. The MRI machine reveals the fibres which carry all the brain’s thought processes. It’s been done in Cardiff, Nottingham, Cambridge and Stockport, as well as London England and London Ontario. Doctors hope it will help increase understanding of a range of neurological disorders and could be used instead of invasive biopsies …

[keep on reading this article by Fergus Walsh on BBC News]

Brain partition scaling

A group coordinated by Dr. Vera Weisbecker examined whether the evolution of mammalian brain partitions follows conserved developmental constraints, causing the brain to evolve as an integrated unit in which the partitions scale with brain size. According to this ‘late equals large’ hypothesis, the timing of neurogenesis predicts the size of the partition such that later and more extended neurogenesis produces larger partitions due to the production of more neural precursors. In order to investigate the impact of neurogenesis on patterns of brain partition growth, the volumes of the whole brain and major partitions were reconstructed from soft-tissue diceCT scans of three marsupial species, including individuals with ages ranging from 1 day to adulthood. They tested three hypotheses consistent with a conserved brain partition growth: H1 postulates that partition scaling during development reflects the evolutionary partition scaling, and thus growth patterns should be uniform between species; H2 assumes that a neurogenesis-driven pattern of partition scaling is predictable from adult brain size, i.e. brain partitions scale with brain size; and H3 states that growth with age might differ between species according to brain size and/or neurogenetic events. Regressions of log partition volume against log rest-of-the-brain volume (whole-brain volume minus partition volume) showed significant interspecific differences in slopes and intercepts of most brain partitions, indicating diverse scaling patterns between species, which could not be predicted by adult brain size, as the smallest-brained species had intermediate slope to the other two.  Growth curves of log partition volume against age were similar in all partitions within-species, but differed between species, particularly in growth rates, with the species with intermediate brain size having slower rates than the other two. Differences in growth patterns do not seem to be related to neurogenetic schedule as largest partitions are not especially late in their development and important maturation processes, like eye opening, occur closer to the end of the growth phase. Thus, none of the hypotheses are supported by these results, challenging the conserved neurogenetic schedules behind the evolution of mammal brain partitions. Moreover, the authors found high phylogenetic signal in brain partition scaling, revealing that a large part of the scaling relationship between brain and partition volumes is explained by phylogeny, which is more in agreement with a mosaic evolution of brain partition sizes, stressing its biological meaning and the level of mammalian brain plasticity. However, the intraspecific regular partition growth curves led the authors to contemplate the existence of an early brain partition pattern regulated by regional gene expression, and propose that further studies of brain partition evolution should integrate developmental neuromere expression models, neuron density, and patterns of neuron migration.


Sofia Pedro

Selective brain cooling in modern humans

The human brain is the most expensive and costly organ in terms of energetic resources and management. However, the current understanding of its sophisticated thermal control mechanisms remains insufficient. Wang et al., 2016, have reviewed the most recent studies on brain thermoregulation and examined the anatomical and physiological elements associated with selective brain cooling. Modern humans have a brain that is approximately three times larger than a primate with a similar body size, which uses 20%– 25% of the total body energy compared with a maximum of 10% in other primates and 5% in other mammals. The evolution of a large and expensive brain in modern humans effectively influences critical factors such as temperature, and functional limits can affect cerebral complexity and neural processes. Brain thermoregulation depends on many anatomical components and physiological processes, and it is sensitive to various behavioral and pathological factors, which have specific relevance for clinical applications and human evolution. The anatomical structures protecting the brain, such as the human calvaria, the scalp, and the endocranial vascular system, act as a thermal interface, which collectively maintains and shield the brain from heat challenges, and preserves a stable equilibrium between heat production and dissipation. Future advances in biomedical imaging techniques would allow a better understanding of the physiological and anatomical responses related to the cerebral heat management and brain temperature in modern humans.

Gizéh Rangel de Lázaro


Craniovascular traits

This month we have published a review on craniovascular traits and anthropology, freely available to download from the Journal of Anthropological Sciences. The article describes many vascular traits that can be analyzed on skulls, through the traces they leave on the bone surface or within the bone itself. The traces of the middle meningeal vessels, the traces of the venous sinuses, the diploic channels, and the endocranial foramina, can provide information on the vascular networks and, indirectly, on the physiological processes associated with their growth and development. The functional information available from these imprints is partial and incomplete, but it is the only one we have on blood flow when dealing with fossils, archaeological remains, or forensic cases. Methods are an issue, because of the difficulties with small samples, scoring procedure, statistics of ordinal and nominal variables, and with an intrinsic limitation in current anatomy: we still ignore the variations and processes behind many macroanatomical features, even in our own species. Previous articles on this topic deal with middle meningeal artery, vessels and thermoregulation, diploic channels, and parietal bone vascularization. Most of these papers are part of a project funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation through an International Collaborative Research Grant, entitled “Cranial anatomy, anthropology, and the vascular system”. This beautiful drawing of a sectioned skull is by Eduardo Saiz.

Structural MRI artifacts

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a valuable and increasingly used method for studying brain anatomy as it allows large-scale, high-quality in vivo analyses. However, some artifacts might influence the digital results, and thus require cautious interpretation. In a recent review, these issues are addressed along with possible solutions. First, we need to keep in mind that the images acquired are not mere photographs of the brain, but reflect some biophysical properties of the tissues, by measuring the radio-frequency signals emitted by hydrogen atoms (present in water and fat) after being excited by magnetic waves. Thus, MRI is an indirect analysis of the brain anatomy and depends greatly on specific tissue properties. Second, researchers can choose from a variety of methods, depending on the aim of the survey. Macrostructure, i.e. the size and shape across voxels, can be studied through manual volumetry or automatic segmentation, voxel- or deformation-based morphometry, surface- based algorithms, or diffusion tractography. Microstructure, i.e. within-voxel contents, is usually analyzed through diffusion MRI, but also magnetization transfer imaging, or quantitative susceptibility mapping.

When making inferences on the biological significance of the outputs, the researcher must account for the possible digital artifacts. These can occur both during image acquisition and processing and can be subject-related and methodological-related. A common problem is subject motion, which might contaminate or influence the results, as the amount of motion varies with other factors influencing brain changes (age, sex, and disease status), or can even correlate with a specific effect being studied. For instance, motion induces gray matter reduction, which might be perceived as brain atrophy. Subject motion is unavoidable, but its influence can be reduced by using a motion detector during acquisition, or by estimating the amount of motion allowing statistical adjustments, also useful to  detect outliers. The difficulty in manipulating the magnetic and radio-frequency fields might also introduce deformation. The main magnetic field should be spatially uniform, but it is dispersed by brain tissue while concentrated by air. This can be partially compensated by applying additional fields. The radiofrequency field is not homogeneous, which affects MRI contrast and intensity. Combining multiple transmit coils might help reduce this caveat, although the contribution and sensitivity of each coil must be taken into account when processing the image.

A particular case that can affect estimates of cortical volume and thickness is the difficulty in discriminating the dura and gray matter due to the similar intensity and anatomical proximity. In this case,  MRI parameters can be manipulated in order to increase the contrast between these tissues, without reducing the contrast between gray and white matter. Individual variability in folding patterns is a further major issue in voxel-based morphometry studies because it complicates the mapping of correspondences between subjects. Registration might be enhanced by analyzing regions with larger variation to find possible anatomical alterations, aligning cortical folding patterns to locate corresponding areas, and mapping sulcal changes to improve sulci identification. Finally, researchers should continuously keep track of the constant advances and innovations in the field. The authors conclude acknowledging the importance of structural MRI when coupled with other biological information, like genetic expression (Allen Brain Atlas), cytoarchitecture (JuBrain), and cognitive associations (Neurosynth).

Sofia Pedro