Sunday, July 23, 2006

 

Shared ancestor to humans, present-day non-human primates may be linchpin in evolution of language

When contemplating the coos and screams of a fellow member of its species, the rhesus monkey, or macaque, makes use of brain regions that correspond to the two principal language centers in the human brain, according to research conducted by scientists at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), two of the National Institutes of Health.

The finding, published July 23 in the advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience, bolsters the hypothesis that a shared ancestor to humans and present-day non-human primates may have possessed the key neural mechanisms upon which language was built. Principal collaborators on the study are Allen Braun, M.D., chief of NIDCD's Language Section, Alex Martin, Ph.D., chief of NIMH's Cognitive Neuropsychology Section, and Ricardo Gil-da-Costa, Gulbenkian Science Institute, Oeiras, Portugal, who conducted the study during a three-year joint appointment at the NIDCD and NIMH.

'This intriguing finding brings us closer to understanding the point at which the building blocks of language appeared on the evolutionary timeline,' says James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. 'While the fossil record cannot answer this question for us, we can turn to the here and now - through brain imaging of living non-human primates - for a glimpse into how language, or at least the neural circuitry required for language, came to be.'

While non-human primates do not possess language, they are able to communicate about such things as food, identity, or danger to members of their species by way of vocalizations that are interpreted and acted upon. In humans, the two main regions of the brain that are involved in encoding this type of information in language are known as Broca's area and Wernicke's area, named for the physician-researchers who discovered them. [Evolution of Language]

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