Research has shown that lead kills neurons (nerve cells), resulting in smaller brains. It has long been hypothesized that such changes in the brain caused by childhood lead exposure may be behind a higher incidence of poor cognitive performance and criminal behavior. And although it is difficult to disentangle the confounding effects of race, class and economics, a recent study by Kim Dietrich, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, found that individuals who suffered from the highest lead exposure as children had the smallest brain sizes—as well as the most arrests.
"That early lead exposure was associated with smaller volumes of cortical gray matter [the parts of the brain rich in neural cell bodies and synapses] in the prefrontal area," he says. "And the fact that we saw both criminal behavior and volume loss in this critical area for executive function is probably more than just a coincidence."
That may be so, however, new scientific studies across several animal species, including humans, are challenging the notion that brain size alone is a measure of intelligence. Rather, scientists now argue, it is a brain's underlying organization and molecular activity at its synapses (the communication junctions between neurons through which nerve impulses pass) that dictate intelligence.
Two years ago, Paul Manger, a professor of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, caused quite a stir when he referred to the beloved bottlenose dolphin, owner of a large, nearly human-size brain, as "dumber than a goldfish."
"When you look at cetaceans, they have big brains, absolutely," Manger says. "But if you look at the actual structure of the brain, it's not very complex. And brain size only matters if the rest of the brain is organized properly to facilitate information processing."
He argues that the systems within the brain—how neurons or nerve cells and synapses are organized—are the keys to determining information-processing capacity. Manger speculates that cetacean brains are large not because of intelligence but instead due to an abundance of fatty glial cells (non-nerve cells serving as a supporting tissue), which may be present to provide warmth in cold waters for the information-processing neurons in the brain's interior.
Mark Uhen, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and Lori Marino, a biologist who studies brain evolution of cetaceans and primates at Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, disagree. Marino says that Manger's theories discount years of behavioral evidence that show dolphins to be complex thinkers. What's more, she says, the mammals have an unusual brain structure with a different functional map and therefore cannot be compared with other species.
Marino believes that the dolphin's unique brain organization may represent an alternate evolutionary route to complex intelligence—and that molecules released in synapses may provide that alternative path.
A study recently published in Nature Neuroscience by Seth Grant, a neuroscientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, along with Richard Emes, a professor in Bioinformatics at Keele University School of Medicine in North Staffordshire, both in England, suggests that all species have the same basic proteins that act in the synapses.
"If you look at us and fish, we have very different cognitive abilities," Emes says. "But we have roughly the same number of these synaptic proteins. It is the number of interactions and gene duplications of these proteins that provide the brain building blocks for higher level cognitive function.”
Emes, Grant and colleagues agree with Marino and Uhenthat intelligence and differences between species are due to molecular complexity at the synaptic level. "The basic dogma says that the computational properties of the brain are based on the number of neurons and synapses," Grant says. "But we modify that by saying that the molecular complexity within those synapses is also important."
Grant and Emes looked at where approximately 150 synaptic proteins were released in the nervous systems of yeast, fruit flies and mice. They found that a variation in production and distribution patterns was linked to higher-level brain organization.
"The proteins that you find in yeast are the sort of proteins that are far more likely to be found expressed throughout the brain in uniform quantities," Grant says. "They laid a foundation to make more diverse and different regions of the brain using different combinations and expressions of other, more innovative proteins." He likens these molecular proteins to implements in a toolbox that help to build specialized brain regions. He goes on to say that the different interactions, duplications or deletions of these proteins resulted over time in the evolutionary development of regions like the prefrontal cortex in humans which is involved in higher executive function like planning and goal-directed behavior
Grant says that this finding offers scientists a new way to approach the study of brain evolution and intelligence and, perhaps more importantly, suggests that looking at sheer brain size has very little to offer in understanding cognitive abilities.
"It's clear now that there are wonderful mental abilities in birds even with their relatively small brains, nerve cells and neural connections. But they have complex molecular synapses," says Grant. "My sense is in the next 10 to 20 years our perspectives about the mental capacities of different species will change quite radically."
But the idea that a big brain equals big smarts is not going to go away anytime soon. Though Manger discounts the role of glial cells in intelligence, a posthumous anatomical study of Albert Einstein's brain showed that the scientific genius's brain differed from the brains of other dead scientists only with its greater ratio of glial cells to neurons. But a study of Einstein's brain organization and synaptic molecule configuration still remains to be completed.