Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Pushing the origin of speech back by 20 million years
A new study finds evidence of an important neural speech pathway in macaques.
- Researchers find traces of something like our arcuate fasciculus in macaque brains.
- Since the last ancestor we shared with macaques was 25-30 million years ago, this would push speech way back.
- The study suggests human speech began in the auditory cortex and eventually extended to include the executive-function areas of the brain.
As far as we know, humans alone are capable of speech as we know it, with words and sentences. This has to do, scientists believe, with a pathway in the brain we possess. Now a new and controversial study reports the presence of this same pathway, albeit in less pronounced form, in macaques. Given that our last shared ancestor with these monkeys was 25-30 million years ago, the study suggests that speech may date back to at least that far, much longer ago than the previous estimates of five million years.
Pinpointing such evolutionary milestones is tricky, since brain tissues don't survive as fossils, leaving us to examine the contemporary brains of our closest relatives, such as primates, to piece these puzzles together. The study's lead author, comparative neuropsychologist Chris Petkov of Newcastle University in the UK compares the study of our living cousins is like finding a lost fossil.
The arcuate fasciculus and the auditory cortex
Image source: Human Brain MRI Data and Connectome Atlas /wikimedia
The fuss is about a neural pathway in humans called the arcuate fasciculus, or AF, that traverses our prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe. Recent research suggests it has connections to other brain regions as well.
"This is a pathway that interconnects brain regions that are important for language. If this pathway or some of these regions it interconnects are damaged because of stroke or brain degeneration a person might immediately (because of stroke) or progressively (because of dementia) lose the ability to understand or to produce language," Petkov tells Newsweek.
For the study, international teams of European and US scientists pored through new imaging data of humans looking for evidence of this pathway in other regions. They found a segment of it, unexpectedly, in the auditory complexes of both brain hemispheres, though most strongly identifiable in the left one. Says Petkov, "To be honest, we were really quite surprised that the auditory system has this privileged pathway to vocal production regions in frontal cortex." He adds, "That in itself tells us that there is something special about this pathway. The link to projection from the auditory system to frontal cortex regions, which in humans supports language, is fascinating."
Not just us
Image source: Steven Diaz/Unsplash
Things got even more interesting when Petkov and his colleagues began searching for the AF in apes and monkeys. In their auditory cortexes, too, the researchers saw what appeared to be something similar to, though less distinct than, the human AF. Their interpretation of the finding is that speech may have begun in the auditory cortex and in humans over time spread outward to encompass the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe whose executive function allowed us to develop basic sound communication into sophisticated speech.
"Whether monkeys have a homolog (a precursor) of this pathway was highly controversial," says Petkov. "Thinking further about the basis for the controversy, when we started the project we also wondered whether such a pathway in monkeys was missed because scientists had not looked in the correct place. We predicted that a missing correspondence to humans might be hiding, so to say, in the auditory system. So that is where we looked first. The analogy here is that we may have been looking in the wrong place for the missing brain 'fossil.'"
Do macaques talk, then?
Image source: Jonathan Forage/Unsplash
Well, in a sense, yes. While we haven't observed words and sentences in these Old World monkeys, they do communicate with vocal sounds and with gestures, signaling information about food and about imminent danger. Other research has identified what appears to be a speech-ready vocal tract.
Finding an AF-like pathway in macaques may not even represent their earliest development, notes Petkov, who points out, "there may be more brain 'fossils' yet to be discovered with even earlier evolutionary origins. Or it may be discovered that the origin of this pathway traces back even further if another brain "fossil" is found."
Not everyone will be onboard with Petkov's conclusions, which he admits are "highly controversial." Still, if they turn out to be valid, even beyond the "wow" factor, who knows where further identification of AF-related pathways could lead, potentially including new ways to work around interruptions in brain circuitry that may affect patients with speech-based disorders.
Joint senior author neurologist Timothy Griffiths says, "This discovery has tremendous potential for understanding which aspects of human auditory cognition and language can be studied with animal models in ways not possible with humans and apes. The study has already inspired new research underway including with neurology patients."
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a9734e306f0914bfdcbe79a1e317a7f0"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b-wAYtBxn7E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.