Media Contacts

Office of Media Relations
2121 Eye St., NW
Rice Hall 5th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20052

Phone: 202-994-6460
Fax: 202-994-9025
E-mail: gwmedia@gwu.edu

 

Nature and Nurture: Human Brains Evolved to be More Responsive to Environmental, Social and Cultural Influences

Aida Gómez-Robles studied human and chimpanzee brains to compare brain size and organization. Photo credit: William Atkins/Georg
Three-dimensional models of chimpanzee and human skulls showing their endocranial casts (teal) and brains (purple). Photo credit: Jose Manual de la Cuetara/Aida Gomez-Robles
Research Examines Genetic Influence on Size and Organization of Human and Chimpanzee Brains
November 16, 2015
MEDIA CONTACTS:
Emily Grebenstein: emgreb@gwu.edu, 202-994-3087
Kurie Fitzgerald: kfitzgerald@gwu.edu, 202-994-6461
 
WASHINGTON (Nov. 16, 2015)—Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, but what is it about the human brain that makes us so different? Researchers at the George Washington University may have unearthed another piece of the puzzle. In a study published on Nov. 16, scientists discovered that human brains exhibit more plasticity, propensity to be modeled by the environment, than chimpanzee brains and that this may have accounted for part of human evolution.
 
This study, the first of its kind to examine the heritability of brain organization in chimpanzees compared to humans, provides a clue as to why humans are so capable of adapting to various environments and cultures. 
 
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 human brains were from twins (identical and fraternal) or siblings; the chimpanzee brains had a variety of kinship relationships, including mothers and offspring or half siblings. The study found that human and chimpanzee brain size were both greatly influenced by genetics. In contrast, the findings related to brain organization were different for chimpanzees and humans. In chimpanzees, brain organization is also highly heritable, 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 that the human brain is extensively shaped by its environment no matter its genetics,” said Aida Gómez-Robles, postdoctoral scientist at the GW Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology and lead author on the paper. “So while genetics determined human and chimpanzee brain size, it isn’t as much of a factor for human cerebral organization as it is for chimpanzees.”
 
The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 
 
“The human brain appears to be much more responsive to environmental influences,” said Dr. Gómez-Robles. “It’s something that facilitates the constant adaptation of the human brain and behavior to the changing environment, which includes our social and cultural context.” 
 
Multimedia Resources
Click here for photos (access code: AGR111015).
 
The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences
Established in 1821 in the heart of the nation’s capital, the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences is the largest of GW’s academic units. It encompasses the School of Media and Public Affairs, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration and more than 40 departments and programs for undergraduate, graduate and professional studies. The Columbian College provides the foundation for GW’s commitment to the liberal arts and a broad education for all students. An internationally recognized faculty and active partnerships with prestigious research institutions place Columbian College at the forefront in advancing policy, enhancing culture and transforming lives through research and discovery.
 
 
-GW-