Over the first few years of life, human cognition continues todevelop, soaking up information and experiences from theenvironment and far surpassing the abilities of even our nearestprimate relatives. In a study published online in Genome Research , researchers have identified extended synaptic development in thehuman brain relative to other primates, a finding that sheds newlight […]
Over the first few years of life, human cognition continues todevelop, soaking up information and experiences from theenvironment and far surpassing the abilities of even our nearestprimate relatives. In a study published online in Genome Research , researchers have identified extended synaptic development in thehuman brain relative to other primates, a finding that sheds newlight on the biology and evolution of human cognition. “Why can we absorb environmental information during infancy andchildhood and develop intellectual skills that chimpanzees cannot?”asks Dr. Philipp Khaitovich of the Chinese Academy of Sciences andthe Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, seniorauthor of the report.
“What makes the human brain so special?” Chimps diverged from the human lineage about 4-6 million years ago,a relatively short period of time by evolutionary standards. Yetthe differences in specialized social and cultural cognitive skillsbetween humans and chimps are striking, and much remains unknownabout the biological basis. To answer his questions, Khaitovich and an international team ofresearchers used microarray and RNA-sequencing technology toinvestigate changes in how genes are read, or expressed, duringdevelopment of the postnatal brain in humans, chimps, and macaques,a more distantly related primate. And the timing of these changesmay set human cognitive development apart from other primates. Thegroup sampled the prefrontal cortex, a more recently evolved brainregion associated with cognition, and the cerebellum, an ancientbrain region related to motor control.
Khaitovich explained that evolutionary studies of the human brainoften produce murky results, however this approach performed evenbetter than expected, pointing them to a specific postnataldevelopmental process. “Among all developmental changes specific tothe human brain, one process – synaptogenesis – clearly stood out.”Khaitovich explained that synaptogenesis, the foundation oflearning and memory in the developing brain, is characterized bythe formation of synaptic connections, strengthening usefulconnections, and also elimination of useless connections. The authors found that in humans, peak expression of synaptic genesin the prefrontal cortex is delayed until about age five, incontrast to chimps and macaques where this occurs in the first yearof life. The authors noted that this human-specific change was onlyobserved in the prefrontal cortex, and not in the cerebellum “Our findings suggest that the human brain remains extremelyplastic and susceptible to environmental input during the firstfive years of life,” said Khaitovich. “Our study uncovers one ofthe important mechanisms potentially involved in evolution of humancognition.” Additional References Citations.
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