The Surprising Organization of Bird Brains: New Research Clears Up 150 Years of False Assumptions

Similar to the cortex of mammals, the nerve cells in certain areas of the brain of birds are organized in vertical layers and horizontal columns.
Credit: RUB, Biopsychlogy

Some birds can perform amazing cognitive feats – even though their forebrains seem to just consist of lumps of grey cells, while mammalian forebrains harbor a highly complex neocortex. A study conducted by a research team at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and researchers from Düsseldorf, Jülich, and Aachen reveals for the first time amazing similarities between the neocortex of mammals and sensory brain areas of birds: both are arranged in horizontal layers and vertical columns. These findings refute 150-year-old assumptions. The team, published its findings in the journal Science on September 25, 2020.

The largest brains

Birds and mammals have the largest brains in relation to their body. Apart from that, however, they have little in common, according to scientific opinion since the 19th century: mammalian brains have a neocortex, i.e. a cerebral cortex that’s made up of six layers and arranged in columns perpendicular to these layers. Avian brains, on the other hand, look like clumps of grey cells.

“Considering the astonishing cognitive performance that birds can achieve, it seemed reasonable to suspect that their brains are more organized than expected,” says Professor Onur Güntürkün, Head of the Biopsychology Research Unit at the RUB Faculty of Psychology. He and his former doctoral students Dr. Martin Stacho and Dr. Christina Herold proved this in several experiments.

Perfected technology facilitates new insights

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