Human brains exhibit more plasticity, the tendency to be modeled by the environment, than chimpanzee brains, which may account for part of human evolution, according to researchers at Georgia State University, the George Washington University and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The findings provide insight into why humans are capable of adapting to various environments and cultures. The study, the first of its kind to examine the inherited genetic factors of brain organization in humans compared to their closest living relatives, was published Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research team studied 218 human brains and 206 chimpanzee brains to compare two things: brain size and organization as related to genetic similarity. The study found that human and chimpanzee brain size were both greatly influenced by genetics.
In contrast, the findings related to brain organization revealed key differences between chimpanzees and humans. In chimpanzees, brain organization is also highly inherited, but in humans this is not the case.
"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," said Aida Gómez-Robles, postdoctoral scientist at the George Washington University Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology and lead author on the paper.
These findings could also have important implications regarding human susceptibility to degenerative diseases.