Exceptional Evolutionary Expansion of Prefrontal Cortex in Great Apes and Humans

Curr Biol. 2017 Mar 6;27(5):714-720. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.01.020. Epub 2017 Feb 2.


One of the enduring questions that has driven neuroscientific enquiry in the last century has been the nature of differences in the prefrontal cortex of humans versus other animals [1]. The prefrontal cortex has drawn particular interest due to its role in a range of evolutionarily specialized cognitive capacities such as language [2], imagination [3], and complex decision making [4]. Both cytoarchitectonic [5] and comparative neuroimaging [6] studies have converged on the conclusion that the proportion of prefrontal cortex in the human brain is greatly increased relative to that of other primates. However, considering the tremendous overall expansion of the neocortex in human evolution, it has proven difficult to ascertain whether this extent of prefrontal enlargement follows general allometric growth patterns, or whether it is exceptional [1]. Species' adherence to a common allometric relationship suggests conservation through phenotypic integration, while species' deviations point toward the occurrence of shifts in genetic and/or developmental mechanisms. Here we investigate prefrontal cortex scaling across anthropoid primates and find that great ape and human prefrontal cortex expansion are non-allometrically derived features of cortical organization. This result aligns with evidence for a developmental heterochronic shift in human prefrontal growth [7, 8], suggesting an association between neurodevelopmental changes and cortical organization on a macroevolutionary scale. The evolutionary origin of non-allometric prefrontal enlargement is estimated to lie at the root of great apes (∼19-15 mya), indicating that selection for changes in executive cognitive functions characterized both great ape and human cortical organization.

Keywords: brain evolution; grade shift; great apes; heterochrony; prefrontal cortex.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Hominidae / growth & development*
  • Humans
  • Phylogeny
  • Prefrontal Cortex / growth & development*