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Scientists have identified a part of the brain that appears to be unique to humans.
The brain region, called the lateral frontal pole of the prefrontal cortex, was described on January 28, 2014 in the journal Neuron, and is linked to higher thinking processes.
"We tend to think that being able to plan for the future, being flexible in approach and learning from others are things that are particularly impressive about humans," said Matthew Rushworth, experimental psychologist at Oxford University.
"We have identified an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human and is likely to have something to do with these cognitive powers." The new brain region is located within a larger region called the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which in previous studies has been associated with higher thinking.
For example, this part of the brain houses the Broca region, which plays a critical role in language. Differences in the ventrolateral frontal cortex have also been linked to psychiatric disorders, such as compulsive behavior disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Rushworth and his colleagues placed 25 20-year-olds on an MRI. The research team mapped the connections between the different regions of the ventrolateral frontal cortex and then divided the brain region into 12 areas that appeared to be constant across all participants.
The researchers then compared the mapped region to the same brain region in 25 monkeys. Rhesus, who had also undergone magnetic resonance imaging. Monkey brains were quite similar to human brains in 11 of the 12 areas identified.
However, one area, called the frontal lateral pole of the prefrontal cortex, existed only in human volunteers. In addition, the entire ventrolateral frontal cortex was more closely linked to auditory parts of the brain in humans, perhaps to facilitate better language processing.
"We have discovered an area in the human frontal cortex that seems to have no monkey equivalent," said co-author Franz-Xaver Neubert of Oxford University. "This area has been associated with strategic planning and decision making as well as multitasking.