Category Archives: Anatomy

Digital Endocasts

[Book]   [Post]


Parietal lobes and tool use

The parietal lobe has a unique central location in the brain, and it is involved in higher cognitive functions. Investigating its functions and connectivity is essential to understand its role in uniquely human abilities. Two recent works have put emphasis on the importance of the parietal lobe for tool use.

Catani and colleagues investigated the intralobar parietal connectivity in human and monkey brains, using diffusion imaging tractography. In general, the patterns of white matter connectivity are similar in both species, although with some differences for areas that are distinct in humans. The larger tract connects the superior parietal lobule (SPL) to the angular and supramarginal gyri of the inferior parietal lobule, within the IPS. The authors suggest it might act to mediate the interaction between the two lobules during object manipulation, and to coordinate both dorsal and ventral visuospatial networks. The second and third larger tracts link the postcentral gyrus to the inferior parietal lobule and to the SPL, respectively. These might transmit tactile and proprioceptive information on the body orientation relatively to an object for guiding motor actions and grasp. The connection between the postcentral and the angular gyri was only observed in humans, leading the authors to highlight its role in specific cognitive functions. Particularly, its connections to SPL are key for tool use, mathematical thinking, and language and communication.

Kastner and coworkers reviewed the organization and function of the dorsal pathway of the visual system of monkey and human brains, focusing on the areas of the posterior parietal cortex within and adjacent to the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). Monkeys and humans have diverged in the functional contributions of the IPS since their last common ancestor, as some functionally-defined areas that are located within the IPS in monkeys have been partially relocated outside this sulcus in humans. The authors suggest this relocation might be due to expansion for accommodation of human-specific abilities, such as tool use. They hypothesize that humans might have developed a derived and advanced tool network from the modification of the macaque circuit for object manipulation. First, the human dorsal vision pathway must provide object shape information regardless of size and viewpoint, facilitating object recognition and mental manipulation. Second, object information is integrated with cognitive information such as working memory, allowing maintaining the information over a period of time. Finally, humans have areas that respond specifically to tool use, some of which also integrate frontal and temporal networks involved in action recognition and semantic knowledge related to tools and actions, respectively.

Both studies point at the parietal lobes and visuospatial integration as key elements for human cognitive capacity, as suggested by evidence in paleoneurology, evolutionary neuroanatomy, and cognitive archaeology.


Sofia Pedro

Brian Metscher

Following bachelor’s work in applied physics at Caltech and a first career as a research engineer at NASA/JPL, Brian Metscher completed his PhD in the then-new interdiscipline of evo-devo at the University of California, Irvine. He did postdoctoral research on the development and evolution of appendages and teeth at The Natural History Museum (London) and Penn State University, and then served five years as an Assistant Professor in southern Indiana. During the summers he carried out research at Yale University and came to the University of Vienna in 2006, to set up the imaging lab in the Department of Theoretical Biology, where he is now Senior Scientist. He helped to establish X-ray microtomography as an essential method for imaging ex vivo biological samples, especially embryos and invertebrates. His lab is developing new and refined sample preparation and imaging methods, with applications including molecular imaging and imaging of specific cells types. He coordinates a MicroCT Methods Forum. Here a brief interview …

What are the basic principles of these methods mixing histology and digital anatomy?

MicroCT provides 3D images of intact samples at resolutions that overlap with what is achieved by light microscopy of sectioned material. Contrast-enhanced X-ray images give only histomorphological information, so microCT images are a powerful complement to traditional histology, which takes advantage of a vast array of stains with different tissue specificities. MicroCT gives a 3D overview and context for more detailed section-based images from histology (and also electron microscope).

So, you stain specimens before microtomographic scan … what about these staining techniques?

The familiar X-ray images of bones or teeth inside the body are possible because the dense calcium-rich materials absorb a lot more X-ray energy than the soft tissues around them – skin, muscle, and internal organs, which are made up mostly of proteins and water. To make soft tissues clearly visible in X-ray images, it helps to add a contrast agent: this can be a suspension of an iodine- or barium-containing liquid injected or swallowed, as is common in clinical radiology examinations. In the case of non-living samples (ex vivo imaging, most of what I do), the sample can be stained with a substance that actually binds to the tissues and has a higher X-ray absorption. The contrast stains used most often are inorganic iodine, phosphotungstic acid, and (less frequently) osmium tetroxide. None of these is specific to any one tissue type, but they do allow the different tissues and structures to be distinguished clearly in the X-ray images.

What kind of expertise, career, and tools are necessary to work in this field?

As with any kind of biological imaging, it is necessary to have a good understanding both of the biological systems under study and of how the imaging systems actually work. So a strong background in microscopy, histology, and image acquisition and analysis is important. And one must always complement one’s own expertise with good working collaborations with partners in other fields.

What is, at present, the most intriguing current challenge?

We would really like to make microCT imaging more tissue- and molecule-specific. Thus I have collaborative projects to test new staining methods and calibrate their functions in microCT images with histological baselines. And my lab is working on refining the antibody imaging method we published a few years ago to make this a more robust and routine method for 3D imaging of gene expression and other molecular patterns in developmental, comparative, and medical-related research.

Neuroanatomy and Tractography

NATBRAINLAB –  Homepage, Maps, and Blog

Skulls and brains in reptiles and birds

In a recent paper, Fabbri et al analyzed the relationship between brain and cranial vault shape in the transition from reptiles to birds. To assess the evolution of this relationship they used a broad sample including Aves, Lepidosauria, Crocodylia, Archosauria, and Reptilia. To assess developmental differences they included an ontogenetic sample of Alligator mississipiensis and Gallus gallus. The results showed that the relationship between the vault bones and the brain is conserved across these taxa, with the frontal bone positioned over the forebrain and the parietal bone over the midbrain or over midbrain and posterior forebrain. Nonetheless, they observed some shape variations, namely on the relative sizes of the frontal and parietal bones and in the position of the fronto-parietal suture relative to the forebrain-midbrain boundary. These two structures are significantly correlated, with the fronto-parietal suture being either anterior to (e.g. stem reptiles) or nearly aligned with (e.g. crown birds) the forebrain-midbrain boundary. In terms of ontogeny, chickens have a shorter ontogenetic trajectory than alligators, as the brain and skull of embryos are similar to the adult ones. The brain and skull of alligators develop with negative allometry, with the brain relatively large in early stages but becoming relatively small during growth. Conversely, the skull and brain of chicken grow with positive allometry, and the authors suggest the brain should be considered peramorphic in Aves. Overall the results stress the important role of the brain in shaping the cranial vault. The authors wonder whether the intimate relationship between brain and frontal and parietal bones is the key for the conservation of the cranial vault across vertebrates.

Sofia Pedro

Digital Anatomy Education Tools

Educational medical resources provided by IMAIOS include interactive atlases and tools. The human e-Anatomy atlas combines digital imaging and computational tools for all anatomical regions from the human brain , with 3D reconstruction and labeling of neuroanatomical features, extending to the human pelvic girdle with 3D reconstructions of bones and arteries. Subscription to these utilities is useful for healthcare professionals but is focused on educational institutions and lecturers with access available for students enrolled in courses. For educational purposes, the resource includes quiz templates for each anatomical region and a virtual environment with enjoyable but educational tools for human lower limb anatomy using the Ninja Lower Limb game. The inclusion of resources for Veterinary Medicine with the vet-Anatomy atlas in similar design as the Human e-Anatomy atlas. All these tools are accessible through computer access and common mobile and tablet platforms in multiple languages.

Alannah Pearson

Primates brain shape

We have published one more paper on the morphology of the precuneus, this time featuring a sample of non-human primates, in collaboration with James Rilling and Todd Preuss from the Emory University (Atlanta, USA). Modern humans have a much larger precuneus than chimpanzees both in absolute and relative size. Taking into account the large brain size in our species, we investigated the midsagittal morphology in non-human primates as to test whether precuneus proportions are influenced by allometric factors. We did a geometric morphometric analysis on a total of 42 MRIs from the National chimpanzee brain resource database, including 5 species of apes and 4 species of monkeys. A first analysis, conducted on the species averages, showed that the main pattern of midsagittal variation involves the general shape of the braincase, which might be due to cranial constraints rather than to changes in proportions of specific brain regions. This main shape pattern separates monkeys from apes, as the former display flatter, elongated brains (with capuchins being the flattest), while the latter exhibit rounder brains with frontal bulging (especially orangutans). This morphological variation correlates with brain size, except for gorillas (which brain is large but elongated), and gibbons (which have smaller but round brains). A second analysis was conducted only on chimpanzees and macaques, to compare two species with different brain size. In neither case the proportions of the precuneus displayed major differences between species or size-related changes. However, as in humans, precuneus size is very variable within each species, suggesting a remarkable plasticity. Overall, the results suggest that precuneus expansion in modern humans is a species-specific characteristic of our species, rather than a simple consequence of increase in brain size. Further studies should address the histological and functional processes involved in this morphological change.

Sofia Pedro

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