July 17, 2013
The Wiring Of The Bird Brain Not So Different From Our Own
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Calling someone a 'bird brain' is usually intended as an insult, but researchers from Imperial College London have discovered that human and avian brains aren't so different after all.Professor Murray Shanahan of the university's Department of Computing and his colleagues have developed the first-ever map of a typical bird's brain, demonstrating how different areas are interconnected in order to process information.
By comparing the results of their work with brain diagrams belonging to humans and other mammals, they discovered that areas vital for long-term memory, problem solving and other higher-level cognitive functions are wired in a similar way - a somewhat startling revelation considering the fact that the two different types of creatures have been evolving along divergent paths for hundreds of millions of years and differ greatly in intelligence.
Shanahan and his colleagues assert that the evolutionary process has resulted in a "common blueprint" for high-level cognition in brain development. Their findings appear in this month's edition of the journal Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience.
"Birds have been evolving separately from mammals for around 300 million years, so it is hardly surprising that under a microscope the brain of a bird looks quite different from a mammal," Shanahan explained. "Yet, birds have been shown to be remarkably intelligent in a similar way to mammals such as humans and monkeys."
"Our study demonstrates that by looking at brains that are least like our own, yet still capable of generating intelligent behavior, we can determine the basic principles governing the way brains work," he added. Previous research has established that birds are capable of complex social reasoning, problem solving, and even the ability to craft and use tools, the researchers noted.
In their study, Shanahan and his colleagues developed their map by reviewing nearly three dozen studies of the anatomy of the pigeon's brain. The pigeon was selected because its brain is considered to be fairly typical for a bird.
The researchers focused their analysis on regions of the brain known as "hub nodes," which are key information processing centers that play a vital role in various high-level cognitive functions. Specifically, they analyzed the hippocampus, which is important for navigation and long-term memory in humans as well as in birds.
The team discovered that these hub nodes had extremely dense connections to other parts of the brain in both types of animals, suggesting that they function in similar ways.
They also compared the decision-making region of the mammalian brain known as the prefrontal cortex with the similarly functioning nidopallium caudolaterale in birds. Despite the different ways that each has evolved, the brain map revealed that the way in which both hub nodes are wired within the brain appear to be quite similar.
Ultimately, Shanahan's team hopes to utilize the information generated from the wiring diagram to build computer models capable of simulating the way in which an animal's brain functions. Those models could then be used to control a robot, for example, the researchers explained.