The human brain in the animal kingdom: Comparative neuroscience and human brain evolution


September 17, 2019 - 12:00pm
Bio. Labs 1080
About the Speaker
Erin Hecht
Speaker Title: 
Assistant Professor
Speaker Affiliation: 
Harvard University

What can other animals tell us about the evolutionary history of our own brains? This talk will summarize findings from two parallel approaches to this question. First, comparisons with our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, can identify which features of brain organization are uniquely human, and therefore might underlie uniquely human behaviors and abilities. For example, comparative structural and functional neuroimaging studies in humans, chimps, and other primates suggest that ancestral primate vision-for-action systems have been exapted to support the coevolution of a linked suite of abilities including social learning, tool use, and language. In contrast to chimpanzees, dogs are not closely related to humans; they are further-diverged from our own species than are mice. However, domestic dogs represent an extraordinary (un-)natural experiment in brain-behavior evolution, and comparisons between breeds specialized for different skills might uncover general mechanisms for the emergence of neural adaptations for behavioral traits. The talk will additionally review new findings related to the neural correlates of domestication in the selectively-bred Siberian fox model, and discuss possible relevance to humans. Finally, I will summarize current and upcoming studies in our new lab here at Harvard.