The finding "evens the playing field when thinking about the development of language," Hopkins said. "The brain is not making a distinction between gestures and verbal language. It's possible that speech co-opted the neural networks that underlie gestures."
Hopkins and his colleagues, who study the evolution of gesturing in chimps, have found that chimps, like humans, have a preference for using their right hand. In chimps, this right-handedness is obvious only when they're communicating information to either another chimp or a human. And brain scans of the chimps, taken when they were using their right hand to communicate, identified activation of the same regions that Gannon's research identified.
The implications of all this? Some experts say that Gannon's finding could help researchers and clinicians understand and treat brain conditions such as aphasia, which wipes out people's ability to comprehend information and express themselves verbally, and autism, which involves a complex array of language-based problems. Others think it might be possible to strengthen these brain connections or open new doors for communication with gestures.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on the brain.
SOURCES: Patrick J. Gannon, Ph.D., chairman, basic science education, Hofstra University School of Medicine, Hempstead, N.Y.; William D. Hopkins, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Ga., and research scientist, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta; Nov. 18, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online
All rights reserved