Posts Tagged 'chimpanzee'

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.

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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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