The early development and evolution of the human brain

Ups J Med Sci Suppl. 1990:48:43-78.


THE CHEMISTRY OF THE BRAIN: The brain and nervous system is characterised by a heavy investment in lipid chemistry which accounts for up to 60% of its structural material. In the different mammalian species so far studied, only the 20 and 22 carbon chain length polyenoic fatty acids were present and the balance of the n-3 to n-6 fatty acids was consistently 1:1. The difference observed between species, was not in the chemistry but in the extent to which the brain is developed. This paper discusses the possibility that essential fatty acids may have played a part in it evolution. THE ORIGIN OF AIR BREATHING ANIMALS: The first phase of the planet's existence indulged in high temperature reactions in which oxygen combined with everything feasible: from silicon to make rocks to hydrogen to make water. Once the planet's temperature dropped to a point at which water could condense on the surface allowing chemical reactions to take place in it. The atmosphere was at that time devoid of oxygen so life evolved in a reducing atmosphere. Oxygen was liberated by photolysis of water and as a by-product of the blue-green algae through photosynthesis. When the point was reached at which oxidative metabolism became thermodynamically possible, animal life evolved with all the principle phyla establishing themselves within a relatively short space of geological time. (Bernal 1973). DHA and nerve cell membranes DHA AND NERVE CELL MEMBRANES: From the chemistry of contemporary algae it is likely that animal life evolved in an n-3 rich environment although not exclusively so as smaller amounts of n-6 fatty acids would have been present. A key feature of the first animals was the evolution of the photoreceptor: in examples of marine, amphibian and modern mammalian species, it has been found to use docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as the principle membrane fatty acid in the phosphoglycerides. It is likely that the first animals did so as well. Coincidentally, the synaptic membranes involved in signal transduction also use high proportions of n-3 fatty acids. However, the n-6 fatty acids also find a place, in the inositol phosphoglyceride (IPG) which appears to be involved with calcium ion transport and hence signal activation and reception. Even in the photoreceptor, the IPG is an arachidonic acid rich phosphoglyceride. THE EVOLUTION OF MAMMALS AND THE LARGE BRAIN: The dominance of n-3 fatty acids in the food chain, persisted until the end of the Cretaceous period when the flowering plants followed on the disappearance of the giant cycads and ferns. A new set of species, the mammals, then evolved with a requirement for n-6 fatty acids for reproduction. This dependance was coincident with the flowering plants which for the first time produced protected seeds: these introduced a rich source of n-6 fatty acids. The brain size of the mammals tended to be relatively larger (that is in relation to body size) by comparison with the previous reptilian or egg laying systems. This process led to the large human brain. A crucial difference between man and other animals, is undoubtedly the extent to which the brain and its peripheral attributes have been developed. This paper will address the possibility that the potential for the evolution of the large human brain may have been released by the evolving human primate occupying an ecological niche which offered a rich source of those nutrients specifically required for the brain. That niche is at the land/water interface.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Organ Size / physiology
  • Origin of Life
  • Plants
  • Reptiles


  • Fatty Acids