Mind Hacks

The Human Advantage

In ‘The Human Advantage: How Our Brains Became Remarkable’, Suzana Herculano-Houzel weaves together two stories: the story of her scientific career, based on her invention of a new technique for counting the number of brain cells in an entire brain, and the story of human brain evolution.

Previously counts of neurons in brains of humans and other animals relied on sampling: counting the cells in a slice of tissue and multiplying up to get an estimate. Because of differences in cell types and numbers across brain regions, these estimates are uncertain. Herculano-Houzel’s technique involves liquidizing a whole brain or brain region so that a sample of this homogeneous mass can yield reliable estimates of total cell count. Herculano-Houzel calls it “brain soup”.

The Human Advantage is the story of her discovery and the collaborations that led her to apply the technique to rodent, primate and human brains, and eventually to everything from giraffes to elephants.

Along the way she made various discoveries that contradict received wisdom in neuroscience:
most species (including rodents primates) have 80% of the neurons in the cerebellum
humans have about 86 billion neurons (16.3 billion in cerebral cortex), which is a missing 14 billion neurons compared to the conventional estimate.
– you can’t compare brain size to count brain cells. Because the cell volume changes with body size, some species with bigger brains have fewer neurons, and species with the same size brains can have vastly different neuron counts.

Example 1
* The capybara (a rodent), cerebral cortex has a weight of 48.2g and 306 million neurons
* The bonnet monkey (a primate), cerebral cortex has a weight of 48.3g and 1.7 billion neurons

Example 2
* African elephant, body mass 5000 kg, brain mass 4619g, 5.6 billion cerebral cortex neurons
* Human, body mass 70 kg, brain mass 1509g, 16.3 billion cerebral cortex neurons

(Fun fact:elephant neurons are 98% in the cerebellum – possibly because of the evolution of the trunk).

A lot of the book is concerned with relative as well as absolute numbers of brain cells. A frequent assumption is that humans must have more cortex relative to the rest of their brain, or more prefrontal cortex relative to the rest of the cortex. This is not true, says Herculano-Houzel’s research. The exception in nature is primates, who show a greater density of neurons per gram of brain mass and more energetically efficient neurons in terms of metabolic requirement per neuron. Humans are no exception to the scaling laws that govern primates, but we are particularly large (a caveat is great apes, who have larger bodies than us, but smaller brains, departing from the body-brain scaling law that govern humans and other primates). Our cognitive exceptionalism is based on raw number of brain cells in the cortex – that’s the human advantage.

This is a book which blends a deep look into comparative neuroanatomy and the evolutionary story of the brain with the specific research programme of one scientist. It shows how much progress in science depends on technological innovation, hard work, a bit of luck, social connections and thoughtful integration of the ideas of others. A great book – mindhacks.com recommends!