Yesterday, we took a break from the posters, symposiums and special lectures to check out the Smithsonian Natural History museum. It was awesome, as expected, but did it relate to neuroscience at all? As a matter of fact, in a way it did. In the morning I attended a lecture called “A Neanderthal Perspective on Human Origins” by Svante Paabo, so as I looked at the ancient bones of dinosaurs that had been uncovered, our own human origins weren’t far from my mind. The speaker, Svante Paabo, is actually an evolutionary geneticist so much of his lecture focused on his research on how and when modern humans diverged from other prehistoric humans and whether there was any genetic mixing between modern humans and Neanderthal populations. It turns out that if you are of European or Asian descent, it’s likely that a small percent of your genome reflects a Neanderthal ancestor.
While I enjoyed learning about early human population genetics, I found myself wondering how his research was related to neuroscience, as I’m sure others in the audience did too. After some time, the speaker addressed this issue exactly. It turns out that through his and other people’s research on modern human evolution, several genes have been isolated that separate modern humans from Neanderthals and other prehistoric human groups. One such gene, the FOXP2 gene is thought to be involved in speech and language development. This is where the neuroscience comes in. Researchers incorporated the human version of the FOXP2 gene into the mouse genome, creating what they refer to as “humanized mice” who have this human gene embedded in their DNA. They then tested the mice in a variety of ways and uncovered some interesting results. First, humanized baby mice that were isolated from their siblings for a few minutes vocalized in different patterns from their non-humanized siblings, suggesting that the FOXP2 gene is indeed involved in vocal development. They also noticed that the FOXP2 mice seemed to have a faster capacity for transferring declarative type memories into procedural-type memories, which they tested using a T-Maze in which the mice either learned to always turn to the left to get a treat or to turn towards the arm with the light over it. Researchers suggested that the greater capacity for procedural memory might be the first step in explaining how modern humans were able to develop the capacity for language.
While much of this lecture was beyond me, it definitely got me thinking about a few things. First, I thought back to our class discussion on language, working memory and consciousness. It certainly seems like the speaker and his colleagues believe that the capacity for language is what sets modern humans apart from other species in terms of cognition. Second, it got me thinking about what a broad field neuroscience can be. The research he presented involved work done by forensic anthropologists, evolutionary geneticists, other geneticists and neuroscientists. If we are ever going to find answers to the big questions such as “how did human language evolve?”, we are going to need the help of people from many diverse areas of science. Back at the museum looking at dinosaur bones and then the modern animals in displays, I couldn’t help but think about these questions again. How did humans evolve to what we are now, and what exactly is setting us apart from the monkeys on display in the Smithsonian?