Your brain is a lot like a chicken brain

Humans may be able to build oil rigs and churches, but now there is more evidence than ever that our brains aren't special. Our neocortex - the seat of complex thought - shares many traits with bird brains.

Neocortex-like elements are found in many mammal brains, but now it turns out they are common throughout nature. In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers explain what our brains share with chickens. From a release about the paper:

Generally speaking, the brains of mammals have long been presumed to be more highly evolved and developed than the brains of other animals, in part based upon the distinctive structure of the mammalian forebrain and neocortex – a part of the brain's outer layer where complex cognitive functions are centered.

Specifically, the mammalian neocortex features layers of cells (lamination) connected by radially arrayed columns of other cells, forming functional modules characterized by neuronal types and specific connections. Early studies of homologous regions in nonmammalian brains had found no similar arrangement, leading to the presumption that neocortical cells and circuits in mammals were singular in nature.

For 40 years, [neuroscientist Harvey] Karten and colleagues have worked to upend this thinking. In the latest research, they used modern, sophisticated imaging technologies, including a highly sensitive tracer, to map a region of the chicken brain (part of the telencephalon) that is similar to the mammalian auditory cortex. Both regions handle listening duties. They discovered that the avian cortical region was also composed of laminated layers of cells linked by narrow, radial columns of different types of cells with extensive interconnections that form microcircuits that are virtually identical to those found in the mammalian cortex.

The findings indicate that laminar and columnar properties of the neocortex are not unique to mammals, and may in fact have evolved from cells and circuits in much more ancient vertebrates.

"The belief that cortical microcircuitry was a unique property of mammalian brains was largely based on the lack of apparent lamination in other species, and the widespread notion that non-mammalian vertebrates were not capable of performing complex cognitive and analytic processing of sensory information like that associated with the neocortex of mammals," said Karten.

"Animals like birds were viewed as lovely automata capable only of stereotyped activity."

But this kind of thinking presented a serious problem for neurobiologists trying to figure out the evolutionary origins of the mammalian cortex, he said. Namely, where did all of that complex circuitry come from and when did it first evolve?

Karten's research supplies the beginnings of an answer: From an ancestor common to both mammals and birds that dates back at least 300 million years.

Birds have complicated thoughts, too.

via UC San Diego