Humans surpass chimps in brain plasticity, according to a recent study published on Monday, November 16, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Research was conducted by a team of experts from George Washington University, Georgia State University and the Anderson Cancer Center, pertaining to the University of Texas.
An analysis was performed on 206 chimpanzee brains and 218 human brains, in order to identify potential similarities caused by genetic factors among members of the same family, in terms of brain structure and size.
More precisely, the human brains had belonged to twins and other siblings, while the animal brains had also originated from closely related individuals, such as half siblings or parents and offspring.
After carrying out a series of MRI scans, researchers were able to create 3-D models of each brain, in order to study it more carefully.
It was discovered that the DNA sequence which influences brain size actually suffers very few variations among humans and chimpanzees.
Researchers also noticed that in fact genetic makeup is a hugely influential factor in this respect, people with nearly identical genes also having surprisingly similarly sized brains.
On the other hand, brain organization was determined to vary significantly among humans, even when subjects shared nearly identical genetic inheritance.
In contrast, primates from the same family displayed little variation when it came to brain structure, their genes being the most decisive in influencing this particularity.
This suggests that human brains are actually influenced by other factors, such as those present in the environment, and are much more flexible and adaptable in comparison with chimp’s brains.
Chimpanzees belong to the subtribe Panina, of the Hominini tribe, and are considered to be closest extant relatives to humans, who hail from the subtribe Hominina.
Now, this study has shown a new manner in which the two separate groups are distinct, and this is related to the way their brain’s architecture is shaped.
While chimps which share DNA tend to inherit the same brain structure, humans display much greater diversity in their brain anatomy, no matter how biologically related they might be.
In other words, they surpass chimps in terms of neuroplasticity, which refers to the ability of the brain to reorganize its pathways, depending on experiences, behaviors, emotions, injuries or other environmental factors.
According to study lead author Aida Gomez-Robles, postdoctoral scientist at George Washington University’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology, human brains are much more malleable based on circumstances, and aren’t entirely reliant on genetic baggage.
This is one of the reasons why humans are equipped with superior intelligence, and can easily learn and adjust to a wide variety of cultures, lifestyles or environments.
Mary Jane West-Eberhard, theoretical biologist at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, believes that this recent study provides definite prof that neuroplasticity is actually an evolutionary advantage of humans over other species.
On the other hand, this flexible brain organization also subjects them to greater health risks, warns William Hopkins, professor of neurosciences at Georgia State University.
More precisely, heightened responsiveness of the brain to stimuli from the environment makes humans much more susceptible to suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
In addition, it increases the possibility of being affected by neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
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