dinsdag 12 augustus 2014

The Marvelous Evolution of Brain Size

A reflection on the brain size of the Leader

I am a big fan of Marvel comics. In the Hulk franchise there is a character known as the Leader (Samuel Sterns). This bad guy got bombarded with gamma radiation, which resulted in a super-sized brain and superior intelligence. But is it biologically possible to live with a brain of this size?

When we look at the human fossil record, it is clear that there is an increase in brain size. The early hominids, such as Australopithecus and Paranthropus, have a cranial capacity of about 400 to 500 cc. The first members of our own genus Homo show a quick increase in brain size from 600 (H. habilis) to 800 cc (H. ergaster). Modern humans are endowed with a cranial volume of 1200 cc on average. Men have a slightly higher capacity compared to women, but I won't go into this (precarious) issue.

But have we reached a limit or can human brain size still increase to take the proportions of the leader? Research shows that this is improbable, the size of the brain is limited by the energy intake of an organism. The brain is a very active organ and requires a huge energy input. There appears to be a linear relationship between energetic cost and number of neurons. So, in principle, the brain could increase in size by adding more space between the neurons but keeping the number of neurons constant. However, this would probably not result in an increase in intelligence. So, it might be feasible to get a brain size similar to the Leader, but without the consequent increase in intelligence.

Is the Leader unrealistic? No, because he obviously extracts the needed energy input for his enormous brain from the gamma radiation! So...says...the Leader!

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