PASADENA, Calif.--Everybody from the Tarzan fan to the evolutionary biologist knows that our human brain is more like a chimpanzee's than a dog's. But is our brain also more like a tiny lemur's than a lion's?
In one previously unsuspected way, the answer is yes, according to neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology. In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), graduate student Eliot Bush and his professor, John Allman, report their discovery of a basic difference between the brains of all primates, from lemurs to humans, and all the flesh-eating carnivores, such as lions and tigers and bears.
The difference lies in the way the percentage of frontal cortex mass increases as the species gets larger. The frontal cortex is the portion of brain just behind the forehead that has long been associated with reasoning and other "executive" functions. In carnivores, the frontal cortex becomes proportionately larger as the entire cortex of the individual species increases in size--in other words, a lion that has a cortex twice the size of another carnivore's also has a frontal cortex twice the size.
By contrast, primates like humans and apes tend to have a frontal cortex that gets disproportionately larger as the overall cortex increases in size. This phenomenon is known as "hyperscaling," according to Bush, the lead author of the journal article.
What this says about the human relationship to the tiny lemurs of Madagascar is that the two species likely share a developmental or structural quirk, along with all the other primates, that is absent in all the carnivores, Bush explains. "The fact that humans have a large frontal cortex doesn't necessarily mean that they are special; relatively large frontal lobes have developed independently in aye-ayes among the lemurs and spider monkeys among the New World monkeys."
Bush and Allman reached their conclusions by taking the substantial histological data from the comparative brain collection at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The collection, accumulated over many years by neuroscientist Wally Welker, comprises painstaking data taken from well over 100 species.
Bush and Allman's innovation was taking the University of Wisconsin data and running it through special software that allowed for volume estimations of the various structures of the brain in each species. Their results compared 43 mammals (including 25 primates and 15 carnivores), which allowed them to make very accurate estimations of the hyperscaling (or the lack thereof) in the frontal cortex.
The results show that in primates the ratio of frontal cortex to the rest of the cortex is about three times higher in a large primate than in a small one. Carnivores don't have this kind of systematic variation.
The hyperscaling mechanism is genetic, and was presumably present when the primates first evolved. "Furthermore, it is probably peculiar to primates," says Allman, who is Hixon Professor of Neurobiology at Caltech.
The next step will be to look at the developmental differences between the two orders of mammals by looking at gene expression differences. Much of this data is already available through the intense efforts in recent years to acquire the complete genomes of various species. The human genome, for example, is already complete, and the chimp genome is nearly so.
"We're interested in looking for genes involved in frontal cortex development. Changes in these may help explain how primates came to be different from other mammals," Bush says.
At present, the researchers have no idea what the difference is at the molecular level, but with further study they should be able to make this determination, Allman says. "It's doable."
The article is titled "The scaling of frontal cortex in primates and carnivores." For a copy of the article, contact Jill Locantore, PNAS communications specialist, at 202-334-1310, or e-mail her at email@example.com.
The PNAS Web site is at http://www.pnas.org.
For more information on Bush and Allman's research, go to the Web site http://allmanlab.caltech.edu/people/bush/3d-histol/3d-brain-recon.html