In a bid to figure out exactly how Neanderthal brains differed from our own, scientists are planning on growing mini Neanderthal brains in the lab.
The work is being carried out by a team of researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who have been instrumental in sequencing the genomes of ancient human species. They now plan on exploring the cognitive ability of Neanderthals by growing mini brains, The Guardian reports.
While all people from outside of Africa already contain a portion of Neanderthal DNA – typically around 2 percent but in some people as much as 6 percent – the scientists working on this latest project are wanting to genetically engineer human stem cells so that they contain the Neanderthal version of specific genes.
They will then coax the stem cells to develop into mini brains, known more properly as organoids. Grown to around the size of a lentil, the little bits of tissue could then help the researchers determine for the first time whether there are any significant differences between the functioning of modern human and Neanderthal brains.
For almost as long as we have known about Neanderthals, the debate has raged about their cognitive ability. For much of the 20th century, it was assumed that the heavy-browed, cave-dwelling hominins were not particularly bright, with the word Neanderthal even becoming synonymous with “dim-witted”.
But over the last decade or so, there has been a slow but steady change in opinion. While archaeologists once thought that Neanderthals were not clever enough to be creative, evidence now suggests that they painted their bodies, crafted headdresses, and potentially even daubed caves with incredible artwork long before modern humans set foot in Europe. Not only this, but burials imply that they may have had ritualistic beliefs, and possibly even religion.
This latest work forms part of a series coming out of the lab of Professor Svante Pääbo, who was one of the main players in decoding the very first Neanderthal genome in 2009. The team have already inserted genes that are thought to have been involved in the facial development of Neanderthals into mice, and those linked to Neanderthal pain perception into frog eggs.
Now they want to see if they can shed light on Neanderthal cognition. The team plan on looking at basic differences that can be observed between modern human and Neanderthal neurons in the developing organoids, to try and figure out if their functioning could explain why we as a species seem to be “cognitively so special,” Pääbo told The Guardian.
Of course, they might also find out that we’re not.