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Humpback whales have brain cells also found in humans

ities and the current study shows that it is organized into a system of core and belt regions. However, substantial variability was found between the cell structure of the cortex in humpbacks compared to toothed whales. The authors suggest that these differences may indicate differences in brain function and behavior in aquatic species that are not yet understood.

One feature that stood out in the humpback whale brain was the modular organization of certain cells into "islands" in the cerebral cortex that is also seen in the fin whale and other types of mammals. The authors speculate that this structural feature may have evolved in order to promote fast and efficient communication between neurons. The other notable feature was the presence of spindle cells in the humpback cortex in areas comparable to hominids and in other areas of the whale brain as well. Although the function of spindle neurons is not well understood, they are thought to be involved in cognitive processes and are affected by Alzheimer's disease and other debilitating brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Spindle neurons were also found in the same location in toothed whales with the largest brains, which suggests that they may be related to brain size.

The authors note that spindle neurons probably first appeared in the common ancestor of hominids about 15 million years ago, since they are observed in great apes and humans, but not in lesser apes and other primates; in cetaceans they evolved earlier, possibly as early as 30 million years ago. It is possible that they were present in the ancestors of all cetaceans, but were retained only in those with the largest brains during their evolution. It may also be that they evolved several times independently in the two cetacean suborders; part of this process may have taken place at the same time as they appeared in the ancestor of great apes, which would be a rare case of parallel evolution.

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Contact: Amy Molnar
amolnar@wiley.com
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
27-Nov-2006


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