Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Science Behind The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes 3b: Neurogenesis

We continue with our coverage of neurogenesis and language acquisition by non human primates.

Our readers might be wondering what neurogenesis is.  It is the process by which neurons are generated from what they call neural stem cells and progenitor cells.  Thus in theory, a brain can be reconstructed or regenerated and revitalized through this process.  What is a neural stem cell?  It is a self-renewing multipotent cell.  In this case multipotent means that this neural cell can generate more than one kind of cell.  In fact, scientists have learned that a blood cell can behave like a neuron cell.  This opens up a vast area of research and possible treatment for serious degenerative brain diseases.

The results of such breakthroughs could be exciting and revolutionary. The Neural Stem Cell Institute in New York headed by Dr. Sally Temple, a leader in this area of research writes,
Much of NSCI research focuses on the NSCs that lie dormant in our nervous systems. These dormant cells can be activated to mediate repair and regeneration in lower animals that regenerate brain tissue or even re-grow an eye. The NSCs that accomplish such remarkable repair are inhibited in higher animals like humans or mice but can be activated by injecting stem cell growth factors. We have found that implanting growth factor releasing beads makes spinal cord injured mice walk again and are working to apply such stimulation of endogenous NSCs to a variety of injuries and diseases that damage our CNS.
For an idea of what kinds of work is being done in this area, we provide you these videos.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Thus, it is not a difficult leap to visualize that if a brain will be able to be repaired, then a normal brain could be enhanced by this regenerative process.  This was the thesis behind The  Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie.  Proponents of neurogenesis say they are far from building super-brains, but already some of these emerging drugs are being used by students and others before critical tests to improve their reaction and speed of thinking.

Language In Non Human Primates
The most famous project relating to seeing the limits of language in monkeys was a project called "Nim."  This was headed by Herb Terrace a Colombia University psychologist in experiments with a chimpanzee.  He was attempting to communicate with the primate through sign language.  After some time, he came to the realization that non human primates do not have "self-awareness."  This means they cannot Laura-Ann Pettito, the researcher stated, "...Nim could never take himself out of the picture.  He took me through the motions.  It was physical. He couldn't say, 'On Monday could you buy me cookies?'"  Dr. Pettito goes on to say,
...the ability to take ourselves out of the situations we describe through language is one of the things that make humans unique as communicators. “Language frees us up from the here and now, [to] let you and I talk about Mars without leaving Earth”...
Terrace concluded that chimpanzees lacked "social intelligence," i.e.,  the ability to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments.  This has been brought into question through recent research.  Petitto, believed that cimpanzees did not have a self-awareness.  This has also been disproven as can be seen from the video two steps down.

However since then much more has been discovered.  Apes at least, have the ability to understand human speech.  We provide you some videos on the extensive work of Dr. Patterson with Koko the ape.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

In fact recently Lisa Heimbauer, 5th year graduate student in Cognitive Psychology at  Georgia State University, has demonstrated that a chimpanzee can perceive distorted words pronounced by a computer.  They can understands hundreds of spoken words.  We cite here another video. If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Further research by Professor Klaus Zuberbuhler at the University of St. Andrews has shown that chimpanzees are socially aware, thus have a form of social intelligence.  Here is an excerpt from a BBC article on this research:
Chimpanzees produce four basic call types: grunts, barks, screams and hoots. "However, there is considerable acoustic variation within these four call types, which makes them difficult to study," says Prof Zuberbuhler. "Our research is beginning to show that much of this variation is closely linked with different external events and therefore very meaningful to others." Chimps specifically use the pant grunt to signal they are subordinate to another ape. A higher ranking group member will never use it in front of a lower ranking member of the group.
What all of this proves is that in the future, we really do not know just how far a NHP brain could advance with a new generation of brain enhancement drugs.  For anyone to say that apes could never learn speech is foolhardy.  They can certainly understand words now.  It is true that their vocal chords do not seem to be able to produce human speech but it is possible that with that with a sufficient understanding of how a gene called FOXP2 works, one day, we may be able to grow NHP with the right kinds of vocal chords for the task. If anyone thinks that this will never happen, they have a long track record of near impossible things science has accomplished to deny also.


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Mike Rose said...

These articles are amazing, so informative and precise. They make understanding these complex issues easy for the average person.

Mike Rose
Founder & CEO
Intuitive IQ