Human Brains Develop Wiring Slowly, Differing from Chimpanzees

Released: 9/25/2012 11:50 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: George Washington University
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Citations Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Newswise — WASHINGTON—Research comparing brain development in humans and our closest nonhuman primate relatives, chimpanzees, reveals how quickly myelin in the cerebral cortex grows, shedding light on the evolution of human cognitive development and the vulnerability of humans to psychiatric disorders, a GW professor finds. Myelin is the fatty insulation surrounding axon connections of the brain.

Recent research by Chet Sherwood, associate professor of anthropology in Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, along with Daniel Miller, a former GW graduate student, and other colleagues, reveals this key difference in brain development between human and chimpanzee. The findings were recently published in the September 24th edition Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In the article, Dr. Sherwood and co-authors write that the development of myelin from birth to adulthood in humans is protracted in comparison to chimpanzees. In humans, myelin develops slowly during childhood, followed by a delayed period of maturity beyond adolescence and into early adulthood. In contrast, in chimpanzees, the development of myelin already starts at a relatively more mature level at birth and ceases development long before puberty.

“These observations indicate that a marked delay in the development schedule of the human neocortex may play an important role in the growth of connections that contribute to our species-specific cognitive abilities,” wrote Dr. Sherwood and co-authors.

The developmental timing of myelination is important because it establishes connectivity among parts of the growing brain, which is essential to higher-order cognitive functions, such as decision-making and emotional regulation. These cognitive functions are known to mature relatively late in humans, after the time of adolescence. Also, this period of persistent myelin development during early adulthood in humans is a time of particular vulnerability to neuropsychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

The Columbian College
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.

The George Washington University
In the heart of the nation's capital with additional programs in Virginia, the George Washington University was created by an Act of Congress in 1821. Today, GW is the largest institution of higher education in the District of Columbia. The university offers comprehensive programs of undergraduate and graduate liberal arts study, as well as degree programs in medicine, public health, law, engineering, education, business and international affairs. Each year, GW enrolls a diverse population of undergraduate, graduate and professional students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 130 countries.


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