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Original comparative data on the brains of apes are scarce. The study of the evolution of the human brain and the human mind depends largely on the availability of such evidence. Are there certain features or aspects of the organization of various components of the brain that can be identified as uniquely human? What kind of reorganization took place in the neural circuitry of the hominid brain after the split from other hominoids? How can species-specific adaptations in behavior and cognition be recognized in the underlying neural substrates?
Recent advances in non-invasive neuroimaging techniques used for the analysis of brain structures in vivo in humans can now also be applied to the comparative study of the extant hominoids. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and 3-D reconstruction allow for the identification and quantification of many neural structures across species. Use of living subjects avoids issues of shrinkage involved in postmortem tissue processing, facilitates the study of larger samples and also permits the study of species chronically underrepresented (e.g. bonobos, gorillas, orangutans). These new techniques allow for the quantification of selected lobes and smaller sectors of the brain as well as for a more accurate analysis of sulcal and gyral patterns.
The anatomy of the human brain has been traditionally studied either on gross postmortem specimens or in processed histological sections under the microscope. Attempts to image the living brain used, until recently, conventional radiography, a technique that relied on the differential absorption of X-rays by different components of the brain and its covers.
Major developments have taken place in the field of neuroscience during the last two decades. We have seen an explosion in imaging techniques used in the study of the structure and function of the living human brain, a variety of improved staining and immunohistological techniques used in post-mortem material, different tracing methods, and stereological and quantitative tools among others. Most of these innovative techniques, however, have not yet been incorporated in the comparative study of the primate brain nor in questions concerned with the evolution of the human brain.
There is a large body of knowledge about the brains of several monkey species and in particular about that of the macaque, as well as steadily growing information about the human brain. Nevertheless, very little is known about the brains of the apes and in particular the brains of gorillas and orangutans. The statement made by Tuttle (1986), more than ten years ago is still very much correct:
are there specific areas of ape central nervous systems (CNS) that underpin these capabilities and are they homologous with areas in the human CNS which are thought to make speech and other symbolically mediated behaviors possible? We are greatly hampered in the exploration of these questions by the fact that, to some extent, the “ape condition” must be interpolated from experiments on monkeys and clinical observations on humans.
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