Some mammals have smooth brains (rat), while others have a lot of folds (dolphins). Higher folds lead to greater surface area and denser connections between neurons, which in turn help increase the brain’s computing speed.
The obvious question then, and one that Robert Toros asks in a new paper is: Are these folds encoded in our genes or is it because larger brains have to fold up to be accommodated in a smaller space?
Toros finds that it has little to do with genes and mostly to do with brain size. This observation explains it succinctly: The back part of our brain which develops earlier has greater space to grow in and thus has fewer folds compared to the front of our brains (ie the neocortex).
The growth of the human brain is the most important thing that happened in our evolution. Understanding how it happened is just as important as having a large, wrinkly brain to wield.
In 2006, Equazen, a company that sells fish oil supplements donated to Durham city council enough pills to feed 3000 children for one year. Their aim was to assess if the supplements would enhance the performance of students and make a difference to the their GCSE scores. In the Guardian, Ben Goldacre pointed out that from the limited number of studies done on the efficacy of these pills, it was not clear whether the supplements are beneficial, have no effect or cause harm. He also suggested that, if the company is carrying out research on such a large scale, it might as well conduct it in a way that allows it to be considered as a proper ‘trial’ by having an equal number of students who were not given the pill (control group). The company paid no heed and nor did the city council persuade them. They went ahead with their plans and gave the children enough pills for the academic year 2007-08. A year later, the GCSE results were announced and instead of a better performance by the students, a decline in GCSE scores was observed (growth in the number of students gaining A* – C grades in 2006-07 was 5.5% and in 2007-08 it was only 3.5%). Eventually, the company made some dubious statements that received a lot of attention from the press and thus achieved their aim of advertising their product. Even then, Goldacre defended his case and stuck to his claims. Now in 2010, a double-blind study has been published in the journal, Review in Developmental Disabilities that investigates the efficacy of these supplements on normal school students.