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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2008;Suppl 47:2-32. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20947.

Neuroscientific approaches and applications within anthropology.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. jrillin@emory.edu


Many of the most distinctive attributes of our species are a product of our brains. To understand the function, development, variability, and evolution of the human brain, we must engage with the field of neuroscience. Neuroscientific methods can be used to investigate research topics that are of special interest to anthropologists, such as the neural bases of primate behavioral diversity, human brain evolution, and human brain development. Traditional neuroscience methods had to rely on investigation of postmortem brains, as well as invasive studies in living nonhuman primates. However, recent neuroimaging methods have made it possible to compare living human and nonhuman primate brains using noninvasive techniques such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, and diffusion tensor imaging. These methods are providing an integrated picture of brain structure and function that was not previously available. With a combination of these traditional and modern neuroscience methods, we are beginning to explore and understand the neural bases of some of the most distinctive cognitive and behavioral attributes of the human species, including language, tool use, altruism, and mental self-projection, and we can now begin to propose plausible scenarios by which the neural substrates supporting these human specializations evolved from pre-existing neural circuitry serving related functions in common ancestors we shared with the living nonhuman primates. Consideration of the process of neurodevelopment suggests plausible mechanisms by which the highly encephalized human brain might have evolved. Neurodevelopmental studies also demonstrate that experience can shape both brain structure and function, providing a mechanism by which people of different cultures learn to act and think differently. Finally, not only can anthropologists benefit from neuroscience, neuroscience can benefit from the more sophisticated concept of evolution that anthropology offers, including an appreciation of evolutionary diversity as well as consideration of the process by which the human brain was formed during evolution.

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