The study reveals striking differences in the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals

The study reveals striking differences in the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals

The study reveals striking differences in the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals

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Neanderthals have long been described as our dull, delinquent cousins. Now groundbreaking research has, although not confirmed the stereotype, has revealed striking differences in brain development of modern humans and Neanderthals.

The study involved inserting a Neanderthal brain gene into mice, ferrets and “mini brain” structures called organoids, grown in the laboratory from human stem cells. The experiments revealed that the Neanderthal version of the gene was linked to slower creation of neurons in the cerebral cortex during development, which scientists say could explain superior cognitive abilities in modern humans.

“The production of more neurons sets the stage for higher cognitive function,” said Wieland Huttner, who led the work at the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. “We think this is the first compelling evidence that modern humans were cognitively better than Neanderthals.”

Related: Sebastian Faulks on Human Traces: “I had no idea I’d become 3% Neanderthal”

Modern humans and Neanderthals split into separate lineages about 400,000 years ago, with our ancestors remaining in Africa and the Neanderthals moving north to Europe. About 60,000 years ago, a mass migration of modern humans out of Africa brought the two species face to face once again and they interbred: Modern humans of non-African descent carry 1-4% Neanderthal DNA . Within 30,000 years ago, however, our ancient cousins ​​had disappeared as a distinct species, and the question of how we overtook the Neanderthals remained a mystery.

“A concrete fact is that wherever homo sapiens went, they would practically surpass the other species present. It’s a bit strange, “said Professor Laurent Nguyen, of the University of Liege, who was not involved in the latest research.” These guys [Neanderthals] they were in Europe long before us and would be adapted to their environment, including pathogens. The big question is why would we be able to overcome them. “

Some argue that our ancestors had an intellectual advantage, but until recently there was no way to scientifically test the hypothesis. That has changed over the past decade as scientists successfully sequenced Neanderthal DNA from a fossilized finger found in a Siberian cave, paving the way for new insights into how Neanderthal biology was different from ours.

Related: Remains of nine Neanderthals found in a cave south of Rome

The latest experiments focus on a gene, called TKTL1, involved in neuronal production in the developing brain. The Neanderthal version of the gene differs by one letter from the human version. When inserted into mice, the scientists found that the Neanderthal variant led to the production of fewer neurons, particularly in the frontal lobe of the brain, where most cognitive functions reside. The scientists also tested the gene’s influence in ferrets and patches of lab-grown tissue called organoids that replicate the basic structures of the developing brain.

“This shows us that although we don’t know how many neurons the Neanderthal brain had, we can assume that modern humans have more neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain, where [the gene’s] activity is higher than in Neanderthals, “said Anneline Pinson, first author of the study.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the Natural History Museum in London, described the work as “groundbreaking”, saying that it has begun to address one of the central conundrums of human evolution: why, with all the past diversity of human beings , we are now the only ones left.

“Ideas have come and gone: better tools, better weapons, correct language, art and symbolism, better brains,” said Stringer. “Finally, this provides a clue as to why our brains may have surpassed those of Neanderthals.”

More neurons do not automatically equate to a smarter type of human being, although it dictates the basic computing power of the brain. Human brains contain about twice the number of neurons in the brains of chimpanzees and bonobos.

Nguyen claimed that the latest work is far from definitive proof of the higher intellect of modern humans, but it shows that Neanderthals had significant differences in brain development. “This is an exciting story,” she added.

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