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Brain Res Bull. 2008 Mar 18;75(2-4):450-9. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2007.10.051. Epub 2007 Nov 21.

The dolphin brain--a challenge for synthetic neurobiology.

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Institute of Anatomy III (Dr. Senckenbergische Anatomie), University of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


Toothed whales (odontocetes) are a promising paradigm for neurobiology and evolutionary biology. The ecophysiological implications and structural adaptations of their brain seem to reflect the necessity of effective underwater hearing for echolocation (sonar), navigation, and communication. However, not all components of the auditory system are equally well developed. Other sensory systems are more or less strongly reduced such as the olfactory system and, as an exception among vertebrates, the vestibular system (the semicircular canals and vestibular nuclei). Additional outstanding features are: (1) the hypertrophy of the neocortex, pons, cerebellum (particularly the paraflocculus), the elliptic nucleus, the facial motor nucleus and the medial accessory inferior olive and (2) the reduction of the hippocampus. The screening of brain structures with respect to shared circuitry and shared size correlations resulted in central loops also known from other mammals which overlap in the cerebellum and serve in the integration and processing of sensory input. It is highly probable that for dolphin navigation the ascending auditory pathway, including the inferior colliculus and the medial geniculate body, is of utmost importance. The extended auditory neocortical fields project to the midbrain and rhombencephalon and may influence premotor and motor areas in such a way as to allow the smooth regulation of sound-induced and sound-controlled locomotor activity as well as sophisticated phonation. This sonar-guided acousticomotor system for navigation and vocalization in the aquatic environment may have been a major factor if not the key feature in the relative size increase seen in dolphin brains.

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