Striking Differences in the Brains of Modern Humans and Neanderthals

Striking Differences in the Brains of Modern Humans and Neanderthals
Carpici Differences in the Brains of Modern Humans and Neanderthals - A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human skeleton on display at the Natural History Museum in New York. Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP

It was long believed that Neanderthals were our wild, illiterate cousins. Now, groundbreaking research has revealed important differences between the brain development of modern humans and Neanderthals, although it does not support the hypothesis.

The experiment required implanting a Neanderthal brain gene into ferrets, mice, and organoids, which are lab-grown "mini-brains" made primarily from human stem cells. Studies have found that the Neanderthal version of the gene is linked to a slower generation of neurons in the cortex of the developing brain, and may explain the greater cognitive ability of modern humans, the researchers suggest.

Wieland Huttner, who led the project at the Max-Planck-Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, noted that "creating more neurons is the basis for higher cognitive performance."

We believe this is the first convincing evidence that modern humans have superior cognitive abilities to Neanderthals.
About 400.000 years ago, modern humans and Neanderthals split into different lineages, with our ancestors remaining in Africa and the Neanderthals migrating north to Europe. When modern humans left Africa in large numbers about 60.000 years ago, the two species came into contact again. As a result, people of non-African descent today have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA.

But 30.000 years ago, our distant relatives went extinct as a separate species, leaving us to wonder how we overcame them.

“It is an undeniable fact that homo sapiens essentially outstrips other species wherever they go.

Professor Laurent Nguyen, of the University of Liège, disagreed with the recent research, calling it "a bit odd". “These men [Neanderthals] lived in Europe long before us and must have been amenable to infections in their environment.

Some claim that our ancestors were smarter than we are, but this claim has not been empirically verified before.

That has changed in the last decade, with the successful sequencing of Neanderthal DNA from a fossilized toe fragment found in a Siberian cave. This allowed the researchers to gain new insights into how Neanderthal biology differed from ours.

The latest research focuses on the TKTL1 gene, which is important in the development of new neurons in the brain. The human and Neanderthal versions of the gene are separated by a letter. When the Neanderthal variant was implanted in mice, the researchers discovered that fewer neurons were produced, particularly in the frontal lobe, which hosts most cognitive activities.

The researchers also examined how the gene affects ferrets and organoids, which are patches of lab-grown tissue that mimic key components of the developing brain.

According to Anneline Pinson, lead author of the study, "This tells us that even if we don't know how many neurons the Neanderthal brain had, we can assume that modern humans had more neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain."

According to Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the Natural History Museum in London, the effort was "pioneer" and began to address one of the greatest mysteries of human evolution: why, despite all the human diversity in the past, we are now the only ones left.

Better tools, bigger weapons, appropriate language, art and symbolism, better minds, and other ideas came and went, according to Stringer. This finally offers an explanation for why our brains might be in better shape than those of Neanderthals.

While it does affect the brain's basic computing power, having more neurons doesn't necessarily make someone smarter. The number of neurons in the human brain is roughly twice that of chimpanzees and bonobos.

The latest research doesn't conclusively prove that modern humans were more intelligent than Neanderthals, but it does show that their brains evolved in different ways, according to Nguyen.

source: theguardian

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