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Home » What is So Special About The Human Brain? By Suzana Herculano-Houzel (Transcript)

What is So Special About The Human Brain? By Suzana Herculano-Houzel (Transcript)

Suzana Herculano-Houzel on brain


What is so special about the human brain? Why is it that we study other animals instead of them studying us? What does a human brain have or do that no other brain does?

When I became interested in these questions about 10 years ago, scientists thought they knew what different brains were made of. Though it was based on very little evidence, many scientists thought that all mammalian brains, including the human brain, were made in the same way, with a number of neurons that was always proportional to the size of the brain.

This means that two brains of the same size, like these two, with a respectable 400 grams, should have similar numbers of neurons.

Now, if neurons are the functional information processing units of the brain, then the owners of these two brains should have similar cognitive abilities. And yet, one is a chimp, and the other is a cow.

Now maybe cows have a really rich internal mental life and are so smart that they choose not to let us realize it, but we eat them. I think most people will agree that chimps are capable of much more complex, elaborate and flexible behaviors than cows are.

So this is a first indication that the “all brains are made the same way” scenario is not quite right.

But let’s play along. If all brains were made the same way and you were to compare animals with brains of different sizes, larger brains should always have more neurons than smaller brains, and the larger the brain, the more cognitively able its owner should be. So the largest brain around should also be the most cognitively able.

And here comes the bad news: Our brain, not the largest one around. It seems quite vexing. Our brain weighs between 1.2 and 1.5 kilos, but elephant brains weigh between four and five kilos, and whale brains can weigh up to nine kilos, which is why scientists used to resort to saying that our brain must be special to explain our cognitive abilities.

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It must be really extraordinary, an exception to the rule. Theirs may be bigger, but ours is better, and it could be better, for example, in that it seems larger than it should be, with a much larger cerebral cortex than we should have for the size of our bodies.

So that would give us extra cortex to do more interesting things than just operating the body. That’s because the size of the brain usually follows the size of the body.

So the main reason for saying that our brain is larger than it should be, actually comes from comparing ourselves to great apes. Gorillas can be two to three times larger than we are, so their brains should also be larger than ours, but instead it’s the other way around. Our brain is three times larger than a gorilla brain.

The human brain also seems special in the amount of energy that it uses. Although it weighs only 2% of the body, it alone uses 25% of all the energy that your body requires to run per day. That’s 500 calories out of a total of 2,000 calories, just to keep your brain working.

So the human brain is larger than it should be, it uses much more energy than it should, so it’s special.

And this is where the story started to bother me. In biology, we look for rules that apply to all animals and to life in general. So why should the rules of evolution apply to everybody else but not to us?

Maybe the problem was with the basic assumption that all brains are made in the same way. Maybe two brains of a similar size can actually be made of very different numbers of neurons.

Maybe a very large brain does not necessarily have more neurons than a more modest-sized brain. Maybe the human brain actually has the most neurons of any brain, regardless of its size, especially in the cerebral cortex.

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So this to me became the important question to answer: how many neurons does the human brain have, and how does that compare to other animals?

Now, you may have heard or read somewhere that we have 100 billion neurons. So 10 years ago, I asked my colleagues if they knew where this number came from. But nobody did.

I’ve been digging through the literature for the original reference for that number, and I could never find it. It seems that nobody had actually ever counted the number of neurons in the human brain, or in any other brain for that matter.

So I came up with my own way to count cells in the brain, and it essentially consists of dissolving that brain into soup. It works like this: You take a brain, or parts of that brain, and you dissolve it in detergent, which destroys the cell membranes but keeps the cell nuclei intact, so you end up with a suspension of free nuclei that looks like this, like a clear soup.

This soup contains all the nuclei that once were a mouse brain. Now, the beauty of a soup is that because it is soup, you can agitate it and make those nuclei be distributed homogeneously in the liquid, so that now by looking under the microscope at just four or five samples of this homogeneous solution, you can count nuclei, and therefore tell how many cells that brain had.

It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s really fast.

So we’ve used that method to count neurons in dozens of different species so far, and it turns out that all brains are not made the same way.

Take rodents and primates, for instance: In larger rodent brains, the average size of the neuron increases, so the brain inflates very rapidly and gains size much faster than it gains neurons.

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But primate brains gain neurons without the average neuron becoming any larger, which is a very economical way to add neurons to your brain. The result is that a primate brain will always have more neurons than a rodent brain of the same size, and the larger the brain, the larger this difference will be.

Well, what about our brain then? We found that we have, on average, 86 billion neurons, 16 billion of which are in the cerebral cortex. And if you consider that the cerebral cortex is the seat of functions like awareness and logical and abstract reasoning, and that 16 billion is the most neurons that any cortex has, I think this is the simplest explanation for our remarkable cognitive abilities.

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