Language is one aspect that makes us human. The ability to produce an infinite number of utterances based on the words in the mental lexicon and a small number of syntactic rules is unique to humans. Other animals can learn words or calls and communicate, but the language ability of humans is unique. A team of researchers led by Angela Friederici from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, together with researchers from the Universities of Texas and Washington (USA), have now published a study in which they directly compared the region in the human brain responsible for language and the brain of chimpanzees using MRI data. It showed that the very area responsible for syntactic processes in humans is expanded compared to chimpanzees. The expansion of this particular brain area over the course of evolution could be the cause of humans’ ability to speak.
Human linguistic ability is based on the ability to apply syntactic rules. They determine the way words are combined to form phrases and sentences. In the human brain, the construction of syntactic structures is supported by a subregion of the so-called Broca’s area in the frontal lobe (inferior frontal cortex). Angela Friederici, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, and Guillermo Gallardo from her team, together with colleagues from the USA, have now mapped the neuroanatomical details of Broca’s region of both species to each other using state-of-the-art MRI technology.
Guillermo Gallardo, lead author of the study, describes the researchers’ initial motivation: "Given the great genetic and neuroanatomical similarity between our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and us, the crucial question was: what is the biological basis for the observed behavioral differences in human language ability? Broca’s area, which is responsible for syntax, seemed like a good candidate for us to take a deeper look."
To uncover the mystery of language formation, the researchers analyzed the tissue composition of two defined areas, called 44 and 45, covering Broca’s region, in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Angela Friederici explains the results: "It turned out that only area 44 in the left hemisphere is expanded in humans compared to chimpanzees. Interestingly, this is exactly the area known to be responsible for syntactic processes in humans. We now hypothesize that over the course of evolution, the expansion of a particular subarea of Broca’s region, namely brain area 44, may be the cause of language ability in humans."
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