The majority of human brain folding occurs during the third trimester of gestation. Although many studies have investigated the physical mechanisms of brain folding, a comprehensive understanding of this complex process has not yet been achieved. In mechanical terms, the “differential growth hypothesis” suggests that the formation of folds results from a difference in expansion rates between cortical and subcortical layers, which eventually leads to mechanical instability akin to buckling. It has also been observed that axons, a substantial component of subcortical tissue, can elongate or shrink under tensile or compressive stress, respectively. Previous work has proposed that this cell-scale behavior in aggregate can produce stress-dependent growth in the subcortical layers. The current study investigates the potential role of stress-dependent growth on cortical surface morphology, in particular the variations in folding direction and curvature over the course of development. Evolution of sulcal direction and mid-cortical surface curvature were calculated from finite element simulations of three-dimensional folding in four different initial geometries: (i) sphere; (ii) axisymmetric oblate spheroid; (iii) axisymmetric prolate spheroid; and (iv) triaxial spheroid. The results were compared to mid-cortical surface reconstructions from four preterm human infants, imaged and analyzed at four time points during the period of brain folding. Results indicate that models incorporating subcortical stress-dependent growth predict folding patterns that more closely resemble those in the developing human brain. Statement of Significance: Cortical folding is a critical process in human brain development. Aberrant folding is associated with disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, yet our understanding of the physical mechanism of folding remains limited. Ultimately mechanical forces must shape the brain. An important question is whether mechanical forces simply deform tissue elastically, or whether stresses in the tissue modulate growth. Evidence from this paper, consisting of quantitative comparisons between patterns of folding in the developing human brain and corresponding patterns in simulations, supports a key role for stress-dependent growth in cortical folding.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100065
JournalBrain Multiphysics
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • Brain development
  • Cortical folding
  • Growth
  • Hyperelasticity
  • Modeling
  • Viscoelasticity


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