Neanderthal-Derived Genetic Variation is Associated with Functional Connectivity in the Brains of Living Humans

Brain Connect. 2021 Feb;11(1):38-44. doi: 10.1089/brain.2020.0809. Epub 2020 Dec 29.

Abstract

Aim: To determine whether Neanderthal-derived genetic variation relates to functional connectivity patterns in the brains of living modern humans. Introduction: Nearly 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals interbred with ancestors of modern humans, imparting a genetic legacy that lives on today. The vestiges of this Neanderthal-derived genetic variation have been previously shown to be enriched in genes coding for neurogenesis and myelination and to alter skull shape and brain structure in living people. Materials and Methods: Using two independent cohorts totaling 553 healthy individuals, we employed multivariate distance matrix regression (MDMR) to determine whether any brain areas exhibited whole-brain functional connectivity patterns that significantly related to the degree of Neanderthal introgression. Identified clusters were then used as regions of interest in follow-up seed-based functional connectivity analyses to determine the connectivity patterns driving the relationships. Results: The MDMR analysis revealed that the percentage of Neanderthal-originating polymorphisms was significantly associated with the functional connectivity patterns of an area of the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) that was nearly identical in both cohorts. Using these IPS clusters as regions of interest in seed-based connectivity analyses, we found, again in both cohorts, that individuals with a higher proportion of Neanderthal-derived genetic variation showed increased IPS functional connectivity with visual processing regions, but decreased IPS connectivity with regions underlying social cognition. Conclusions: These findings demonstrate that the remnants of Neanderthal admixture continue to influence human brain function today, in ways that are consistent with anthropological conceptualizations of Neanderthal phenotypes, including the possibility that Neanderthals may have depended upon visual processing capabilities at the expense of social cognition, and this may have contributed to the extinction of this species through reduced cultural maintenance and inability to cope with fluctuating resources. This and other studies capitalizing on the emerging science surrounding ancient DNA provide a window through which to view an ancient lineage long past.

Keywords: MDMR; Neanderthal; admixture; brain networks; intraparietal sulcus; introgression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neanderthals* / genetics