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Brain Area Found in Humans and Not Primates

Feb 06, 2014 03:57 PM EST

Researchers have identified an area of the human brain that makes humans unique, even from our closest relatives. The area pinpointed is known to be intimately involved in the most advanced planning and decision-making process. Processes we would consider "especially human," according to a press release announcing the findings.

"We tend to think that being able to plan into the future, be flexible in our approach and learn from others are things that are particularly impressive about humans. We've identified an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human and is likely to have something to do with these cognitive powers," said senior researcher professor Matthew Rushworth of Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology.

Researchers compared MRI imaging of the ventrolateral frontal cortex area of 25 adult human volunteers with equivalent imaging of 25 macaque monkeys. From the MRI data, the researchers were able to divide the human ventrolateral frontal cortex into 12 areas that were consistent across all the individuals. The researchers then compared the 12 areas in the human brain region with the organization of the monkey prefrontal cortex. They found that one area of the ventrolateral frontal cortex had no equivalent in the macaque - an area called the lateral frontal pole prefontal cortex.

"We have established an area in human frontal cortex which does not seem to have an equivalent in the monkey at all," said first author Franz-Xaver Neubert of Oxford University. "This area has been identified with strategic planning and decision making as well as 'multi-tasking'."

The ventrolateral frontal cortex area of the brain is only present in humans and other primates. Many of the highest aspects of cognition and language are found in this area, while other parts are implicated in psychiatric conditions like ADHD, drug addiction or compulsive behavior disorders.

The Oxford research group also found that the auditory parts of the brain were better connected with the humans' prefrontal cortex than the macaques'. This area may be critical for our ability to understand and generate speech, said the researchers.

The Oxford University researchers reported their findings in the science journal Neuron.

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