Rowan Prof on Top of Birds? Brains

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Rowan University biological sciences and psychology professor Dr. Gerald E. Hough II has no problem with the term ?bird brain.?

Last year, Hough was among a team of top-flight professionals from ar

Rowan University biological sciences and psychology professor Dr. Gerald E. Hough II has no problem with the term ?bird brain.?

Last year, Hough was among a team of top-flight professionals from around the world who explored renaming parts of birds? brains to more closely match their developmental origins. The group recently published a scientific paper about its findings.

?The problem with bird brain names is that they were named to correspond to mammal areas that looked similar, when in fact they were much different things,? Hough said. ?So over the last two years, we discussed all the facts and came up with new terms that fit the evolutionary origin of the avian brain. And bird brains are smarter than we think!?

The international consortium of 29 neuroscientists of which Hough was a part asserts that the century-old traditional nomenclature is outdated and does not reflect new molecular, genetic and behavioral studies that reveal the brainpower of birds.

For example, the group identified behavioral studies demonstrating that pigeons can discriminate cubist from impressionistic styles of painting, that crows can make useful tools and pass on their skills to other birds, and that parrots can not only learn human words but also use them to communicate with humans.

The researchers emphasize that the old view of evolution as progressive and linear is outdated, pointing out that so-called "primitive" animals such as birds evolved some 50 to 100 million years after mammals.

The Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium published a report on the rationale for the proposed revised nomenclature in the February 2005 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience. A technical report detailing the revisions was published in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. The consortium's efforts were supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, including the NSF's Waterman Award for young researchers to the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper's first author, Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.

"We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we think," wrote the consortium members in their paper. "For this reason, and in the light of new evidence about the function and evolution of the vertebrate brain, the international consortium of neuroscientists has reconsidered the traditional 100-year-old terminology that is used to describe the avian cerebrum.

The consortium members asserted that the old terminology -- which implied that the avian brain was more primitive than the mammalian brain -- has hindered scientific understanding. They concluded, "The inaccurate evolution-based terminology for the vertebrate brain that was used throughout the 20th century became a severe impediment to the communication of scientific discoveries and the generation of new insights."

The consortium's revision of the nomenclature for avian brains is aimed at replacing the century-old system developed in the 19th century by Ludwig Edinger, considered the father of comparative neuroanatomy. Edinger's system was based on the then-common practice of combining Darwin's recent theory of evolution and Aristotle's old concept that there exists a natural "scale" of creatures from lowest to highest. The result was the views that evolution was progressive from organisms with "lower" intelligence to those with "higher" intelligence and that evolution had a purpose -- the generation of humans.

However, said Jarvis, "We have to get rid of the idea that mammals -- and humans in particular -- are the pinnacle of evolution. We have to stop using words like 'lower vertebrates' and 'higher vertebrates.' We also have to understand that evolution is not linear, but an intricate branching process. So, we can't automatically expect to track a structure in the human brain back to other current vertebrate species."

In the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, the authors described studies by other researchers and their own studies demonstrating that the so-called "primitive" regions of avian brains were actually sophisticated processing regions homologous to those in mammals.

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