The brains of human and Neanderthal babies were almost identical

When we're born, our brains are pretty much indistinguishable from those of our extinct Neanderthal relatives. Were our ancestors really so different from Neanderthals after all?

It's a major ongoing debate among scientists as to how intelligent Neanderthals really were. Although there's a entrenched popular notion that Neanderthals were dullards compared to modern humans, recent research has challenged that notion. In particular, it turns out Neanderthals have brains that are about the same size of modern humans, which suggests they could have possessed much the same levels of cognitive ability.

Indeed, new research that considered the brain of a Neanderthal that died in infancy suggests that, when we're born, our brains are the same as those of Neanderthals. Both sets of brains start out as roughly the same size and possess remarkably similar structures. But these same findings reveal the real differences that set in after about a year of life, and this discovery may help settle the matter of Neanderthal intelligence.

According to lead researcher Philipp Gunz, after about a year modern human brains start to connect together different regions of the brain, which is crucial to intelligence - and something Neanderthal brains didn't do:

"In modern humans, the connections between diverse brain regions that are established in the first years of life are important for higher-order social, emotional, and communication functions. It is therefore unlikely that Neanderthals saw the world as we do."

Since Neanderthal brains didn't undergo similar sets of changes, it's unlikely that they achieved the same levels of intelligence we possess today. And this difference in early brain development could be crucial to fully comprehending the current work on sequencing the Neanderthal genome, as the researchers explain:

The uniquely modern pattern of early brain development is particularly interesting in the light of the recent breakthroughs in the Neanderthal genome project, which identified genes relevant to cognition that are derived in living humans. We speculate that a shift away from the ancestral pattern of brain development occurring in early Homo sapiens underlies brain reorganization and that the associated cognitive differences made this growth pattern a target for positive selection in modern humans."

[via Current Biology]