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Mapping brain asymmetry

Key Points

  • Brain asymmetry has been observed in humans and other animals in terms of structure, function and behaviour. This lateralization is thought to reflect evolutionary, developmental, hereditary, experiential and pathological factors.

  • Language and handedness are well-known behaviours that provide clues to the structural and functional lateralization of the human brain. Language production and some aspects of syntactic processing are localized primarily to areas of the anterior left hemisphere, including Broca's area, whereas language comprehension is confined primarily to the left posterior temporal–parietal region, including Wernicke's area. Hand preference correlates strongly with structural and functional asymmetries in language-processing structures, such as the planum temporale.

  • Among the most prominent observations of anatomical brain asymmetry are the right frontal and left occipital petalia-impressions on the inner surface of the skull that reflect protrusions of the right frontal pole and left occipital pole beyond their counterparts in the opposite hemisphere. A twisting effect is also seen, known as Yakovlevian anticlockwise torque, in which structures surrounding the right Sylvian fissure are 'torqued forward' relative to those on the left.

  • The asymmetrical trajectory of the Sylvian fissure was one of the first anatomical asymmetries to be described. The height of the end-point of the Sylvian fissure is negatively correlated with the volume of the planum temporale, an extension of Wernicke's posterior receptive language area. In humans, the left planum temporale is up to ten times larger than the right. Broca's speech area is also larger in volume than its homologue in the right hemisphere. Heschl's gyrus, which corresponds to the primary auditory cortex, is larger on the left side. By contrast, the central sulcus, which houses the primary motor cortex, is reported to be deeper and larger in the right hemisphere.

  • Advances in brain-mapping methods have enabled us to detect and visualize patterns of asymmetry in whole populations. These approaches have led to a more detailed description of the anatomical organization of the brain, allowing us to identify subtle variations in asymmetry that occur during development,with age and in disease. Among the diseases that have been associated with aberrant brain asymmetries are Alzheimer's disease, in which left-hemisphere regions are affected earlier and more severely, and developmental dyslexia, in which reduced or reversed asymmetry of the planum temporale has been reported. Male–female differences in brain asymmetry have also been detected,with some evidence to suggest that the male brain is more lateralized than that of the female.

  • The degree to which functional asymmetries parallel those observed anatomically has been investigated using a variety of methods, including positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging. These studies have provided further insights into brain asymmetry, describing features of left-hemisphere language localization and right-hemisphere dominance for certain visuospatial tasks.

  • Studies of the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underpin the formation of brain asymmetries are in their infancy. Future investigations will be led by a detailed knowledge of how the brain deviates from symmetry both in healthy individuals and in disease. Brain-mapping approaches show great promise for assessing factors that modulate the lateralization of the brain, including the ontogeny, phylogeny and genetic determinants of brain asymmetry.

Abstract

Brain asymmetry has been observed in animals and humans in terms of structure, function and behaviour. This lateralization is thought to reflect evolutionary, hereditary, developmental, experiential and pathological factors. Here, we review the diverse literature describing brain asymmetries, focusing primarily on anatomical differences between the hemispheres and the methods that have been used to detect them. Brain-mapping approaches, in particular, can identify and visualize patterns of asymmetry in whole populations, including subtle alterations that occur in disease, with age and during development. These and other tools show great promise for assessing factors that modulate cognitive specialization in the brain, including the ontogeny, phylogeny and genetic determinants of brain asymmetry.

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Figure 1: Language areas with anatomical and functional asymmetries.
Figure 2: Petalia and Yakovlevian torque.
Figure 3: Multi-subject maps of brain asymmetry.
Figure 4: Ventricular asymmetry.
Figure 5: Asymmetrical progression of Alzheimer's disease.

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Acknowledgements

Grant support was provided by a P41 Resource Grant from the National Center for Research Resources. Further support for algorithm development was provided by the National Library of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, and by a Human Brain Project grant to the International Consortium for Brain Mapping, funded jointly by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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DATABASES

OMIM

Alzheimer's disease

dyslexia

schizophrenia

FURTHER INFORMATION

Encyclopedia of Life Sciences

computed tomography

magnetic resonance imaging

MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences

hemispheric specialization

magnetic resonance imaging

positron emission tomography

International Consortium for Brain Mapping

Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI)

Glossary

PLANUM TEMPORALE

An auditory processing structure that is located in the posterior temporal lobe.

BRODMANN AREA

(BA). Korbinian Brodmann (1868–1918) was an anatomist who divided the cerebral cortex into numbered subdivisions on the basis of cell arrangements, types and staining properties (for example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex contains subdivisions, including BA 46, BA 9 and others). Modern derivatives of his maps are commonly used as the reference system for analysis of brain-imaging findings.

ASSOCIATION CORTICES

The neocortical regions that are not involved in primary sensory or motor processing. They include frontal areas subserving executive functions and temporoparietal areas supporting visuo-spatial processing.

PETALIA

Impressions left on the inner surface of the skull by protrusions of one hemisphere relative to the other. In humans, for example, the right frontal lobe often extends beyond the left anteriorly, and the left occipital lobe beyond the right posteriorly. These asymmetries can be detected in endocasts of fossilized cranial bones.

YAKOVLEVIAN ANTICLOCKWISE TORQUE

A double asymmetry of the normal human brain in which the right frontal lobe extends across the midline, over the left, and the left occipital lobe protrudes over the right. The brain thus has the appearance of having been exposed to an anticlockwise twisting force, or torque.

HESCHL'S GYRUS

A division of the superior temporal gyrus that corresponds to the primary auditory cortex.

TENSOR MAP

A map illustrating the principal directions of some multidimensional quantity at each point in space, such as the preferred directions of anatomical variation in a population, or the principal directions of water diffusion in the brain (measured using diffusion tensor imaging).

VOXEL

A volume element: the smallest distinguishable, box-shaped part of a three-dimensional space.

PERFECT PITCH

The ability to identify any musical note without comparing it to a reference note.

PLANUM PARIETALE

An asymmetrical cortical area in the inferior parietal lobule, buried deep in the posterior ascending ramus fo the Sylvian fissure. It is anatomicaly adjacent to the planum temporale, an asummetric auditory processing structure.

WADA TEST

A test used in surgical patients to determine which brain hemisphere is dominant for language. Intracarotid injection of sodium amytal produces transient anaesthesia in the ipsilateral hemisphere as well as blockage of speech function if it is the dominant hemisphere.

DICHOTIC LISTENING

A technique for studying brain asymmetry in auditory processing. The subject is presented simultaneously with different sounds to the right and left ears, and is later tested to determine which, if any, auditory stimulus was more accurately analysed.

POLYMORPHISM

The simultaneous existence in the same population of two or more genotypes in frequencies that cannot be explained by recurrent mutations.

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Toga, A., Thompson, P. Mapping brain asymmetry. Nat Rev Neurosci 4, 37–48 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1009

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