The Biology of Cognition
17 May 2010 - A report on a mini seminar series held in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Warwick between January and March, 2010 to explore the evolutionary origins and mechanisms of higher mental function
Professor Nicholas Dale, who organised the event explains
"We humans are prone to have a rather conceited view of our own cognitive abilities. As Biologists we accept the tenets of Darwinian evolution. This implies that our impressive abilities must have come from somewhere and it is an interesting question to explore the degree to which those cognitive abilities that we think of being uniquely human arise from those in much simpler organisms".
This premise of this seminar series was therefore to explore the progression from slime moulds to humans, taking in birds and synapses to discuss how the fundamental features of cognition and group social behaviour arise.
First up to speak was Dr Chris Thompson from the University of Manchester who gave a talk entitled
“Towards an understanding of the genetic regulation of social behaviour: conflict and cooperation in a social amoeba”
He described his work on Dictyostelium –a social amoeba. Upon starvation Dictyostelium cells aggregate together and undergo a developmental program resulting in a fruiting body containing live spores (which pass on their genes) and dead stalk cells (which do not). Chris talked about his work characterizing social interactions between different Dictyostelium isolates. His studies revealed an amazingly complex repertoire of fixed and adaptive social strategies and he showed how mathematical modeling of these interactions, together with the identification and characterization of social mutants, suggests how apparently complex behaviours can have a relatively simple genetic basis.
Next was Dr Dora Biro from the University of Oxford. Dora’s talk was entitled
“From individual to collective decisions in animal navigation”
The context for her talk was the idea that animals (including humans) that live in groups must make joint decisions about many aspects of their daily lives. She gave a fascinating introduction to the topic demonstrating how groups are typically composed of individuals that vary in their knowledge, experience, or “opinions”. Her introduction ranged from studies showing how collective guestimates of the weight of a prize bull at a farm fair is remarkably accurate, to the statistical success of “phoning a friend” versus “asking the audience” in Who Wants to be a Millionaire (bottom line on this is –ask the audience). This raises interesting questions about the mechanisms that allow groups to reach decisions collectively (such as coalition government). She focussed on her studies tracking the navigation of homing pigeons, which she used as a model paradigm of decision-making. These birds, when taken out into the Oxfordshire countryside to a particular release site, have a preferred route home, which differs from bird to bird. Often rather than flying in a straight line the pigeons follow particular landmarks (one followed a major road so closely that it went round a roundabout before taking the required exit, pictured above left). Homing Pigeons also like to fly with company, this then set the scene for extremely elegant experiments in which different pigeons were paired with together where differing degrees of conflict in route choice could be set (i.e. birds with routes of varying similarity). She then showed how there were leaders and followers, but that if the routes were too different (watch out Nick and Dave) the birds split apart.
After this Professor Seth Grant of the Wellcome Sanger Centre, Cambridge gave a talk entitled
“Organization and evolution of postsynaptic cognitive mechanisms”
Seth described how multiprotein complexes in the postsynaptic terminal of synapses control adaptive and cognitive processes in metazoan nervous systems. These multiprotein complexes are organised into molecular networks that detect and respond to patterns of neural activity. Combinations of proteins are used to build different complexes and pathways producing great diversity –but where have they come from? Seth’s insight was that these complexes evolved from an ancestral core set of proteins, which he termed the protosynapse, that control adaptive behaviours in unicellular organisms. He showed how expansion in the numbers and interactions of proteins resulted in the more complex and specialized synapses of invertebrates and vertebrates. Interestingly, mutations in the genes encoding the complexes result in many human diseases of the nervous system.
The final speaker was Dr Simon Fisher from the University of Oxford who considered a subject that we think of as uniquely human in a seminar entitled
“Building bridges between genes, brains and language”
Simon and his colleagues had previously discovered that people with mutations of the FOXP2 gene have problems mastering sequences of mouth movements needed for fluent speech. However FOXP2 is an evolutionarily ancient and highly conserved gene, which switches on and off other genes in brain circuits of diverse vertebrates. He showed data demonstrating that dysfunction of this gene impairs neural plasticity and motor-skill learning in mice, and impedes vocal imitation during song learning in zebra finches. Analyses of molecular evolution in primates indicate that the FOXP2 protein sequence underwent accelerated change in the human lineage after splitting from the chimpanzee. Nevertheless, Simon stated that FOXP2 should not be viewed as the mythical “gene for language” but as one piece of a complex puzzle. He finished with the intriguing story that FOXP2 in Neanderthals is identical to that in modern humans. This is especially topical now that the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced giving some evidence that Neanderthals and humans may have interbred.
Professor Dale summarises:
"Overall, the series highlighted both the intelligence and potential that "lower" organisms have, and demonstrated similarities and parallels with our own cognitive functions and behaviours. Our appreciation of the full potential of animal behaviour is growing - not because animals have become smarter - but because we (as exemplified by the speakers) are now asking the right questions".
Seminar series organised, and article written, by Professor Nicholas Dale from the University of Warwick.