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Yerkes Researchers' Use of Functional Brain Imaging Shows Similarities and Differences in the Mental Lives of Chimps and Humans

October 11, 2007

Findings suggest the neurobiological foundations of human language may have been present in the common ancestor of modern humans and chimpanzees.

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Emily Rios, 404-727-7732,; Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709,

ATLANTA – In the first study of its kind, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, used functional brain imaging to assess resting-state brain activity in chimpanzees as a potential window into their mental world and to compare chimpanzee brain activity to that of humans. The researchers’ findings, which appear in the current online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest chimpanzees may engage in thought processes similar to those of humans at rest as well as thought processes that are quite different. The findings are significant because they show the uniqueness of humans as well as our similarity to our closest living primate relative.

According to lead researcher Jim Rilling, PhD, “Examples of resting-state thoughts are when your mind wanders to past social interactions, to potential future social interactions and to problems you need to solve.” Working with his research team that included Yerkes, Emory College and/or Center for Behavioral Neuroscience colleagues Sarah Barks, Todd Preuss, PhD, and Lisa Parr, PhD, and using positron emission tomography (PET), Rilling studied eight humans and five chimpanzees. Results showed significant overlap in brain activity patterns such as high levels of activity in the medial prefrontal and medial parietal cortex, brain regions associated with reflecting on mental states of self and others. Results also showed differences with humans, including activity in regions associated with language and the analysis of meaning; these were found in humans but not chimpanzees. “Widespread activity in language regions of the human brain suggest humans think with words, though, of course, chimpanzees do not,” said Rilling.

In choosing to image resting-state brain activity, the researchers reasoned if the pattern of brain activity in chimpanzees at rest is similar to humans, there is likely to be some similarity in cognition; conversely, they thought, if there are differences in brain activity during rest, it would imply differences in resting-state cognition.

“This study bears on important issues in comparative psychology, specifically whether chimpanzees understand other beings have minds. This study doesn’t resolve the issue, but it does suggest humans and chimpanzees share brain systems involved in thinking about one’s own behavior and that of others,” Dr. Preuss added. 

Researchers plan to further study chimpanzee brain activity by imaging the animals while they are engaged in tasks that specifically drive mental processes the researchers hypothesize to be ongoing at rest.

For more than seven decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to advancing science and to improving human health and well-being. Today, the center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health–funded national primate research centers, provides specialized scientific resources, expertise and training opportunities. Recognized as a multidisciplinary research institute, the Yerkes Research Center is making landmark discoveries in the fields of microbiology and immunology, neuroscience, psychobiology and sensory-motor systems. Research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases, such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease; treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; unlock the secrets of memory; determine behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy; address vision disorders; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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