Focus-Science and Technology - - DISCOVERIES -

Who’s a pretty and clever boy, then? Neu­ro­sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Al­berta have iden­ti­fied the neu­ral cir­cuit they be­lieve is be­hind the unusual in­tel­li­gence seen in some parrots. The dis­cov­ery is an ex­am­ple of con­ver­gent evo­lu­tion – where or­gan­isms not closely re­lated evolve sim­i­lar traits – be­tween the brains of birds and pri­mates, and could po­ten­tially pro­vide in­sight into the neu­ral ba­sis of hu­man in­tel­li­gence, they say.

Us­ing brain sam­ples from 98 birds, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from chick­ens and wa­ter­fowl to parrots and owls, the sci­en­tists stud­ied an area of the brain known as the me­dial spir­i­form nu­cleus (SpM). They found that parrots have an SpM that is much larger than that of other birds, pos­si­bly ex­plain­ing their unusual lev­els of in­tel­li­gence.

In birds, the SpM is re­spon­si­ble for trans­fer­ring in­for­ma­tion be­tween the two largest ar­eas of the brain, the cor­tex and cere­bel­lum, which al­lows for higher- or­der pro­cess­ing and more so­phis­ti­cated be­hav­iour. In hu­mans and other pri­mates, the pon­tine nu­clei per­forms this same func­tion.

“The SpM is very large in parrots. It’s ac­tu­ally two to five times larger in parrots than in other birds, like chick­ens,” said Dr Cris­tian Gu­tier­rez-Ibanez, who co-au­thored the re­search. “In­de­pen­dently, parrots have evolved an en­larged area that con­nects the cor­tex and the cere­bel­lum, sim­i­lar to pri­mates. This is an­other fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ple of con­ver­gence be­tween parrots and pri­mates. It starts with so­phis­ti­cated be­hav­iours, like tool use and self­aware­ness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more sim­i­lar­i­ties we see.”

Next, the re­search team hopes to study the SpM in parrots more closely, to un­der­stand what types of in­for­ma­tion go there and why.

“This could present an ex­cel­lent way to study how the sim­i­lar, pon­tine-based process oc­curs in hu­mans,” said Gu­tier­rez-Ibanez. “It might give us a way to bet­ter un­der­stand how our hu­man brains work.”

Who’re you call­ing bird-brained?

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