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How did we get so smart? Study sheds light on evolution of the brain

Princeton and Bell Labs scientists have devised a simple but powerful method for analyzing brain anatomy, providing the first reliable measure of how brains of humans and other mammals are related to one another across evolution.

In a paper in the May 10 issue of Nature, the researchers show how comparing the relative sizes of 11 brain parts reveals a unique brain structure for each species. They calculated the percentage of total brain volume contributed by each part and created the term "cerebrotype" to describe the resulting 11-number characterization, just as the word "genotype" describes the unique DNA sequence for each species.

The analysis shows that mammals fall into a spectrum of cerebrotypes, with humans at one end and insect-eaters, such as hedgehogs, at the other.

"Intuitively, we know there is something about our brains that is extreme," said Sam Wang, an assistant professor of molecular biology and the senior author of the paper. "What we have here is a direct measure of one way in which our brains are extreme."

The findings support the "social intelligence" theory of primate evolution, which holds that prehuman ancestors were at an advantage for survival if they excelled at complex social dynamics such as working in groups and predicting the behavior of others.

Wang and colleagues based their work on a 20-year-old database assembled by German researchers who catalogued information about the brains of 300 animals. Wang's co-authors on the paper are Princeton undergraduate Damon Clark and Partha Mitra, a scientist at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs.

The researchers were initially interested in a comparative study of brains as a means of identifying general principles of brain organization. "We were looking for underlying engineering or design principles that might account for how evolution led to one brain architecture and not another," said Mitra.

The research may help scientists understand the selective forces that drove
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Contact: Steven Schultz
sschultz@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
9-May-2001


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