Posts Tagged 'chimpanzee'

Skulls and brains

A recent study by José Luis Alatorre Warren and colleagues supplies one of the very few analyses on both skull and brain morphology from the same individuals, in humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. They analyzed the shape variation of the brain and skull separately, and then at the same time. The study describes the spatial relationships between brain and skull, and the differences between species. The study confirms once more that there is a limited correspondence between cerebral and cranial anatomical boundaries and references. According to their results, the most striking difference between humans and chimpanzees is, in the former, a spatial change of the frontal lobe regions associated with language. They also found a larger parietal cortex in humans when compared with apes but, according to the model they use, these differences would be not so remarkable as suggested by most of the preceding studies. However, their geometrical model is very comprehensive and it includes many distinct and independent elements of the brain and of the skull, that are melted and averaged when all their coordinates are superimposed together. In these cases, punctual or local differences are spread onto the whole global variation, and can be hardly detected. Namely, these extensive shape registrations are excellent to analyze general covariation patterns, but can be tricky when trying to identify the contribution of local regions or of specific anatomical elements in a heterogeneous and multifactorial anatomical complex.

In my opinion, the article suffers, unfortunately, some important conceptual limitations. There is a confusion between Ralph Holloway’s theories on parietal evolution in australopiths (largely based on the position of the lunate sulcus) and my own ones on parietal evolution in modern humans (based on the size and proportions of the parietal lobe). It seems obvious to say, but we are dealing with distinct taxa (australopiths and modern humans) and distinct processes (early hominid evolution and late human specialization), and therefore there is no reason to look for common factors or mechanisms. For example, when taking into account the possibile influence of posture on brain shape, the evolution of bipedalism may be an issue for australopiths or early Homo, but not when comparing modern humans with Neandertals. Also, there seems to be a constant misunderstanding between parietal cortex enlargement (which involves parietal lobe absolute and relative size) and brain globularization (which refers to the rounded shape of the brain). It should be clear that these features can be influenced by (and due to) different factors, although they concern the same anatomical regions. Finally, there is a frequent confusion (and miscitation) between papers and results on parietal bones, and papers and results on parietal lobes. So, in my opinion, we are dealing with a study which supplies an amazing analysis, but a problematic discussion of the results. I think this study would have seriously benefited from a more cautious interpretation of the numerical outputs, and a more careful integration of the literature. Nonetheless, this exceptional database is there, and I hope it will supply in the future more information on the spatial relationships between brain and braincase.

Precuneus and primates

The precuneus displays a remarkable variability in size and shape among adult humans, and it also represents a main difference between human and chimp brain morphology, being larger in our species. It can be argued that precuneus expansion in humans is due to an allometric pattern shared among primates. In this case, a large precuneus is a by-product of a big brain and scaling rules. We have now published a brain shape analysis in non-human primates, suggesting that this seems not the case. The midsagittal brain morphology in non-human primates is probably influenced by cranial architecture more than by brain differences. And, precuneus morphology is apparently not influenced by brain size, with no major differences between monkeys and apes. Therefore, its expansion in humans is likely to be a species-specific character, and not an allometric consequence of a large brain. The exact histological factors involved in this change is still to be investigated, as well as its functional (cognitive) consequences. In general, precuneus morphology is very variable also within other primate species, suggesting a noticeable plasticity. Its areas are crucial for coordination between body and vision (visuospatial integration, visual imaging, simulation, body cognition, autonoesis, etc.), and are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors (i.e., visuospatial training and practice). Its position physically matches those brain districts supposed to have undergone an expansion in the evolution of Homo sapiens, when compared with fossil hominids.

Precuneus and chimps

Bruner et al 2016 - Brain Structure and FunctionWe modern humans have larger parietal bones and large parietal lobes when compared with extinct human species and living apes. We also have an ontogenetic parietal bulging stage, a stage which is absent in apes and Neandertals. Interestingly, a main factor of variability in our brain morphology is the size of the precuneus, in terms of proportions and cortical surface area. Now we have compared human and chimp brains, and here it goes again: the main difference is a much larger precuneus in our species. It doesn’t look like an allometric issue, being possibly associated with that bulging stage specific of modern humans, and even absent in large-brained Neandertals. The precuneus is essential in visuospatial integration, coordinating brain, body, and environment, and bridging the somatosensorial experience with simulation and self-awareness. It is a key element to integrate space, time, and  social perception. It is also worth noting that parietal lobes are particularly vascularized in our species, and the precuneus is a high-metabolic and heat-accumulating element. This may be interesting when considering that it suffers early metabolic impairments in Alzheimer’s disease, a pathology particularly associated with our species. The precuneus is also a central hub of the default mode network. Interestingly, at least in adult modern humans the size of the parietal lobes is inversely correlated with the size of the frontal and temporal lobes, introducing some phylogenetic issues on the evolution of the fronto-parietal system.

For a long time we have been looking for subtle differences between human and ape brain. This one looks not that subtle. Any functional or histological change behind this expansion, at inter-specific and intra-specific level, is still to be investigated. But most of all, it remains to be established the nature of such morphological variations. Genetic factors and selective processes cannot be excluded, but these areas are also particularly sensitive to environmental influences, including training and cultural effects.

More asymmetries

Gomez-Robles et al 2013Cerebral asymmetries are a thorny issue in both paleoneurology and human neuroanatomy: despite their relevance, their origin and actual variations are elusive. Conceptual and technical problems tend to hamper conclusive statements, as evidenced by the many disagreements and uncertainties in the field. A recent paper on asymmetries in human and chimpanzee brains has added a geometric perspective to the topic. This shape analysis suggests that humans and chimpanzees have the same kind of asymmetries, with humans showing a larger degree of variation and expression of those patterns. Hence, again it seems it is more a matter of grade than of novel characters, at least in terms of geometry. Interestingly, allometry has a very minor role (if any) in intraspecific differences. In both species, shape variation and asymmetries are especially marked in the parietal areas.

Pan & Pan

Although geometric morphometrics is currently the most promising method to analyze endocasts, there are alternatives. Durrleman and colleagues propose an approach based on deformations between surfaces. This method can help with non-linearity of the ontogenetic processes, lack of morphological references, or continuity of the anatomical tissues. The approach is definitely more complex and less intuitive than geometric morphometrics. This may mean sometimes more analytical power, sometimes more analytical bias.  The case-study is the endocranial ontogeny in chimps and bonobos: some shared patterns, but interesting differences too.

Deep asymmetries

Stephanie Bogart and colleagues have published an interesting study on sulci asymmetries in chimps and macaques, on NeuroImage. Quantifying cortical depth and surface area, they found consistent  population-level brain asymmetries in chimpanzees but not in macaques. The paper is a good review on many issues related to brain asymmetries and evolution in primates. Asymmetries that, however, are the results of mechanisms and processes which are still poorly known.


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