Scientists set eyes on Neanderthal 'brain'

Reconstruction of Neanderthal man. Credit: public domain

Scientists have for the first time set eyes on a three-dimensional Neanderthal brain in the form of a virtual model made to fit the empty, fossilised skulls of long-dead individuals, a study said Thursday.

The reconstructed organ confirmed earlier observations, based more loosely on head size and shape, that Neanderthals had a larger brain than their early Homo sapiens cousins, but with a smaller cerebellum—the lower part near the spine that controls balance and movement.

It is also involved in speech and learning.

The distinction may have caused social and cognitive differences between the near relatives, and may explain why one went extinct while the other thrived, said Naomichi Ogihara of the Keio University in Japan, who co-authored a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Although the difference could be subtle, such a subtle difference may become significant in terms of natural selection," he told AFP.

But nothing can be concluded yet about any relation between the Neanderthal's brain organisation and its eventual demise.

Ogihara and a team combined the disciplines of physical anthropology, mechanical engineering, and neuroscience for their reconstruction.

They used virtual casts to model the shape and size of four fossilised Neanderthal skull cavities, and four of ancient humans.

They then used MRI scans from nearly 1,200 modern-day people to model an "average" human brain, which they "deformed" to fit into the prehistoric skulls.

This allowed the team to estimate what the brains would have looked like, and how individual regions would have differed between the two species.

"We are so far from understanding the of prehistoric humans that any small advance is welcome," French palaeoanthropologist Antoine Balzeau told AFP of the study.

He was not involved in the research.

Neanderthals emerged in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East some 200,000 years ago. They vanished about 30,000 years ago—coinciding roughly with the arrival of modern humans out of Africa.

The two groups briefly overlapped and interbred, and today, non-African people carry about 1.5-2.1 percent of Neanderthal DNA.

Long portrayed as knuckle-dragging brutes, recent studies have started to paint a picture of Neanderthals as sophisticated beings who made art, took care of the elderly, buried their dead, and may have been the first jewellers—though they were probably also cannibals.

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More information: Takanori Kochiyama et al. Reconstructing the Neanderthal brain using computational anatomy, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-24331-0
Journal information: Scientific Reports

© 2018 AFP

Citation: Scientists set eyes on Neanderthal 'brain' (2018, April 26) retrieved 20 August 2019 from
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Apr 27, 2018
In similar fashion we will soon begin reconstructing all the various organs and muscle structures that fossilized skeletons supported and, extrapolating from what we will have learned from living animals, we will begin to reconstitute the DNA that formed them.

At some point we will be able to resurrect the animals themselves based solely on these fossil templates we dig out of the dirt. No mosquitoes and amber juice necessary.

Life is extremely complex but ot infinitely so. We should eventually know enough about evolution to understand all the forces that produced these animals. And so would any sufficiently advanced alien intelligence as well. They would be able to look at our planet from a distance and extrapolate what creatures are living here based on the repetitive forms they have encountered before, combined with a thorough understanding of biophysics.

And so they would have no need to visit here in person.

Apr 28, 2018
This is what the wet dream is called. Technically it's already possible to breed the dogs into shapes of prehistoric dinosaurs but without knowledge of their biology and etiology they will still remain just a dogs inside
We will know enough about biology and genetics to know what organs were attached to and contained by those bones. A brain pan is a brain pan. A bird's brain pan contains much the same complex and detailed information about what was inside it as a dinosaurs brain pan.

The article gives an example of the kinds of detailed info about physiology, biology, and genetics that can be inferred from skeletal templates.

DNA is a story of how an organism arrived at its form and function through interaction with its environment. It is a story that can be traced back through earlier forms and different environments.

Apr 28, 2018
It is not a unique story but one that is repeated in other species responding to similar environmental conditions to produce similar forms, within the limits of what biochemistry is able to do.

And as we read it back through time we realize that all of life is one continuous story recording lessons learned and possibilities explored.

Those possibilities are NOT infinite. DNA can contain only so much information. And we can be confident that we will eventually read and understand that entire story, filling in gaps in extinct species with what we learn from living ones. And from the wealth of the info contained in the remains that those extinct species have left behind.

A femur is a femur. It is not hard to compare one from a dinosaur with one from a chicken and understand the DNA that produced the 2.

Apr 28, 2018
"Both the human leg and chicken leg have a femur, a fibula, and a tibia. In a chicken, the femur holds the thigh meat, and the fibula/tibia combination holds the meat of the drumstick. ... The joint at the top of the femur is the hip. The joint between the femur and the fibula/tibia is the knee."

We know or will know where in the DNA molecule femurs are described, and what muscles need to be attached to them to make them work. We can study femurs from a great number of species, read their DNA, and understand the extent of variability not only of the femurs themselves but of their related organs.

And we can look at dino femurs with this knowledge to draw from and begin to write the DNA not only of femurs but of the muscles attached to them, the marrow they contained, the immune systems that marrow supported, the circulatory systems that brought them fluids, the nervous systems that made their legs function, and so forth.

Apr 28, 2018
Life is a story and we will one day be able to read it from start to finish. It is a story composed of words, phrases, subplots, repeated over and over from chapter to chapter. This complex but finite lexicon is what gives us the ability to understand it in its entirety.

Dinos are not that much different from chickens. Triceratops are not so different from waterbuffalo. Whales have much in common with plesiosaurs. Mosasaurs and sharks. Gorgonopsids and canines. Eels and snakes. Owls and bats. Etcetcetc.

Apr 29, 2018
While they did decent basic work with a good idea of morphological deformation, it seems to be a crap paper. Some problems:
- There is no common species brain reference, so they used modern humans to map back. Not surprisingly they did not find any significant morphological differences between modern and ancient humans [Figure 2].
- They do not discuss functional reorganization much outside of connectivity of changed volumes.
- Neanderthals were found to have the *same* cerebellar volume! They used the relative difference (larger N. brain) to get a significant difference.
- The studies connecting today's cerebellar volume with functional outcome (larger cerebellum correlates with better outcome on highly integrated tasks) were meta-analysis of studies in problematic fMRI. More importantly the result, if robust, used the absolute volume!

AFAIU according to their own data Neanderthals and modern humans may be equally good at complex tasks, but the older humans not so much...

Apr 29, 2018
@TGO: "It is not hard to compare one from a dinosaur with one from a chicken and understand the DNA that produced the 2."

It would be *extremely hard* - likely impossible - even if we did have the dinosaur DNA, which we do not. (Putative protein reconstruction may have netted - ambiguous - partial alleles.)

There is rarely "one gene, one trait" outcome, about 10 % of our 25 kgenes can be involved in height development, say. And even if we can recover parts of the genome with some confidence, we do not have a handle on repeats, histones, and other often functional elements that decides the workings of the germ cell, or its development to adult.

May 01, 2018
It would be *extremely hard* - likely impossible - even if we did have the dinosaur DNA, which we do not
We have the template - the skeleton. And we have all the species still living to study.
There is rarely "one gene, one trait" outcome, about 10 % of our 25 kgenes can be involved in height development, say
-So youre saying that since its too hard for us to fathom at the present then we never will??
And even if we can recover parts of the genome with some confidence
We HAVE the DNA existing in living animals.

Seems like youre implying theres some chaos-like limit to what we can discern about genetics and the animals that result from them. Why? Everything about us is physical. Therefore we should eventually be able to understand everything about the genetics that creates us.

And by us I mean every species we are aware of from the evidence we can gather. All life is connected, related, all descended from earlier species, all the way back to the first.

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