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How did the elephant get its trunk? And how did humans get their brains?

15 March 2010

Professor Colin Blakemore

Professor Blakemore FRS, one of the most eminent scientists and science communicators in the UK, captivated a packed audience at the University recently drawing on a life-time of research on the development and plasticity of the brain and the conclusions he drew from this about the evolution of the human brain.

Marking the inaugural Society for Neuroscience Wales Chapter public lecture, Professor Blakemore explained that according to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the extreme adaptations of many species like the elephant’s trunk and the giraffe’s neck, and highly complex structures, such as the human eye, are produced by gradual change, with all intermediate forms being useful to the bearer.

Co-sponsored by the Cardiff Neuroscience Centre and the Wales Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, the Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford addressed the issues of the incredible complexity of the human brain and how, even though our genetic make-up had changed little over the past 100,000 years, human cognitive achievement has continued to accelerate.

Professor Blakemore believes that the answer lies in the adaptability and plasticity of the human brain. He hypothesised that the human cerebral cortex might have expanded in size massively on a short timescale, in an environment where the high energy demands of such a large brain were not selected against, and might then have proved beneficial in a less temperate environment. He then went onto conclude the public lecture by explaining that our brains can change their connections on the basis of our individual experiences, which has enabled humans to escape from the informational limits in the blueprint of their genes and has propelled them into a new phase of evolution.

Professor Frank Sengpiel, director of Cardiff Neuroscience Centre, said: "This event was a very fitting way to celebrate the launch of the Society for Neuroscience Wales Chapter. Scientists of Professor Blakemore’s standing are able to provide an incredibly fascinating insight into neuroscience in a way which is meaningful to a diverse public audience. At Cardiff Neuroscience Centre we are keen to develop as many ways as possible to increase the public’s understanding not only of the work we are doing here at Cardiff, but also of the wider progress and benefits of brain research."

Cardiff Neuroscience Centre (CNC) is a virtual Centre of Excellence for Neuroscience research - an umbrella organisation that draws together neuroscience expertise from across Cardiff University and the Cardiff & Vale University Health Board. The Wales Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience is a regional arm of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). The SfN is the world’s largest organisation of scientists and physicians devoted to advancing understanding of the brain and nervous system.

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