Linking contemporary high resolution magnetic resonance imaging to the von economo legacy: A study on the comparison of MRI cortical thickness and histological measurements of cortical structure

Lianne H. Scholtens, Marcel A. de Reus, Martijn P. van den Heuvel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The cerebral cortex is a distinctive part of the mammalian nervous system, displaying a spatial variety in cyto-, chemico-, and myelinoarchitecture. As part of a rich history of histological findings, pioneering anatomists von Economo and Koskinas provided detailed mappings on the cellular structure of the human cortex, reporting on quantitative aspects of cytoarchitecture of cortical areas. Current day investigations into the structure of human cortex have embraced technological advances in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to assess macroscale thickness and organization of the cortical mantle in vivo. However, direct comparisons between current day MRI estimates and the quantitative measurements of early anatomists have been limited. Here, we report on a simple, but nevertheless important cross-analysis between the histological reports of von Economo and Koskinas on variation in thickness of the cortical mantle and MRI derived measurements of cortical thickness. We translated the von Economo cortical atlas to a subdivision of the commonly used Desikan–Killiany atlas (as part of the FreeSurfer Software package and a commonly used parcellation atlas in studies examining MRI cortical thickness). Next, values of “width of the cortical mantle” as provided by the measurements of von Economo and Koskinas were correlated to cortical thickness measurements derived from high-resolution anatomical MRI T1 data of 200+ subjects of the Human Connectome Project (HCP). Cross-correlation revealed a significant association between group-averaged MRI measurements of cortical thickness and histological recordings (r = 0.54, P < 0.001). Further validating such a correlation, we manually segmented the von Economo parcellation atlas on the standardized Colin27 brain dataset and applied the obtained three-dimensional von Economo segmentation atlas to the T1 data of each of the HCP subjects. Highly consistent with our findings for the mapping to the Desikan–Killiany regions, cross-correlation between in vivo MRI cortical thickness and von Economo histology-derived values of cortical mantle width revealed a strong positive association (r = 0.62, P < 0.001). Linking today's state-of-the-art T1-weighted imaging to early histological examinations our findings indicate that MRI technology is a valid method for in vivo assessment of thickness of human cortex. Hum Brain Mapp 36:3038–3046, 2015.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3038-3046
Number of pages9
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

Cite this