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Study: Human brains have more plasticity than chimp brains

Plasticity -- the ability to successfully adapt to different cultures and environments -- may open humans up to novel diseases and genetic maladies.

By Brooks Hays
Study: Human brains have more plasticity than chimp brains
The structure of chimp brains are more heavily influenced by genetics. Human brains are more plastic and adaptable. Photo by Georgia State University

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- A new study showed human brains are more malleable and responsive to environmental changes than chimpanzee brains. Human brains are more plastic.

In the context of neurology, plasticity describes the tendency of the brain to change shape, structure and size in reaction to external factors.

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To better understand plasticity and its importance to the human brain and human health, researchers set out to compare and contrast neural adaptability between the two species.

A team of scientists from Georgia State University, George Washington University and the University of Texas's Anderson Cancer Center analyzed 218 human brains and 206 chimpanzee brains.

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Specifically, researchers looked at the correlations between genetics and brain size and structure among relatives. The human brains that were mapped belonged to twins and siblings, while the studied monkeys shared a variety of familial relations. Brains were scanned using MRIs and reconstructed as three-dimensional computer models.

Researchers published their results in the journal PNAS.

The portion of the genome responsible for brain size was very similar for both chimps and humans. As well, brain size was heavily influenced by genetics. Relatives with similar genes tended to have very similarly sized brains.

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The same was not true of brain structure. The genes controlling brain structure were decidedly different. For chimps, brain structure was much like brain size, mostly inherited. But human brain structure was less influenced by genes.

"We found that the anatomy of the chimpanzee brain is more strongly controlled by genes than that of human brains, suggesting the human brain is extensively shaped by its environment no matter its genetics," lead study author Aida Gomez-Robles, postdoctoral scientist at the George Washington University Center, said in a press release.

The research suggests plasticity of the human brain is an important part modern man's evolved intelligence. But that same adaptability -- the ability to successfully adapt to different cultures and environments -- may open humans up to novel diseases and genetic maladies.

"It is also possible that it makes our brain more vulnerable to many human-specific neurodegenerative and neurodevelopment disorders," explained William Hopkins, professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State.

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