Hand in glove: Brain and skull in development and dysmorphogenesis

Joan T. Richtsmeier, Kevin Flaherty

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

179 Scopus citations


The brain originates relatively early in development from differentiated ectoderm that forms a hollow tube and takes on an exceedingly complex shape with development. The skull is made up of individual bony elements that form from neural crest- and mesoderm-derived mesenchyme that unite to provide support and protection for soft tissues and spaces of the head. The meninges provide a protective and permeable membrane between brain and skull. Across evolutionary and developmental time, dynamic changes in brain and skull shape track one another so that their integration is evidenced in two structures that fit soundly regardless of changes in biomechanical and physiologic functions. Evidence for this tight correspondence is also seen in diseases of the craniofacial complex that are often classified as diseases of the skull (e.g., craniosynostosis) or diseases of the brain (e.g., holoprosencephaly) even when both tissues are affected. Our review suggests a model that links brain and skull morphogenesis through coordinated integration of signaling pathways (e.g., FGF, TGFβ, Wnt) via processes that are not currently understood, perhaps involving the meninges. Differences in the earliest signaling of biological structure establish divergent designs that will be enhanced during morphogenesis. Signaling systems that pattern the developing brain are also active in patterning required for growth and assembly of the skull and some members of these signaling families have been indicated as causal for craniofacial diseases. Because cells of early brain and skull are sensitive to similar signaling families, variation in the strength or timing of signals or shifts in patterning boundaries that affect one system (neural or skull) could also affect the other system and appropriate co-adjustments in development would be made. Interactions of these signaling systems and of the tissues that they pattern are fundamental to the consistent but labile functional and structural association of brain and skull conserved over evolutionary time obvious in the study of development and disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-489
Number of pages21
JournalActa Neuropathologica
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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