by Alex Fox/Smithsonianmag.com
Human brains are big, and they get big fast. When we’re born, our noggins contain triple the number of neurons found in the skulls of newborn chimpanzees and gorillas, some of our closest relatives, even though all three species spend about the same amount of time in the womb. Now, new research published last week in the journal Cell identifies a molecular switch that may be key to triggering the human brain’s speedy development, reports Karina Shah for New Scientist.
“This provides some of the first insight into what is different about the developing human brain that sets us apart from our closest living relatives, the other great apes,” says Madeleine Lancaster, a developmental biologist with the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council and the study’s lead author, in a statement. “The most striking difference between us and other apes is just how incredibly big our brains are.”
To compare the development of human brain cells with those of chimpanzees and gorillas, researchers grew tiny clusters of brain cells, called organoids, from stem cells in the lab. As expected, the human brain organoids raced ahead of the great apes.