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Different Brains

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Human brains are different from others in the world of mammals. Many animals share some aspects of our intelligence but they don’t take it to the same level we have.  Pinning down why we’re more advanced on a neurological level has been tricky. Earlier studies have found no significant differences between the brains of mammals. But now we have a lead.

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found that, compared to other mammals, human brains have a much lower number of the neuronal channels that allow the flow of ions such as calcium, potassium, and sodium. This flow produces the electrical impulses that allow neurons to communicate with each other; having fewer of them could mean that the human brain can operate more efficiently, diverting resources to more complex cognitive functions.

The seeds of the finding were planted in 2018. In the study it was found that dendrites, the branching structures at the tips of nerve cells through which the brain’s electrical impulses are received via ion channels. From here, the dendrite generates what we call an action potential, which transfers the signal onwards.

Comparing the brains of the two species, the researchers found that the human dendrites had a marked lower density of these ion channels compared to rat dendrites.

The new research has been expanded to include 10 species: shrew, mouse, gerbil, rat, ferret, guinea pig, rabbit, marmoset, macaque and, of course, human, using samples of tissue excised from epilepsy patients during brain surgery.

The exceptionally low ion channel density in the human brain was glaring, when compared with all the other brains.

This finding reveals, the researchers said, an intriguing avenue for further investigation. In future research, the team hopes to explore the evolutionary pressures that might have led to this difference, and isolate where, exactly, that extra brain energy is going.

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