5.10.2011

How important is brain temperature? Ask a large predator fish

This is the kind of thing I can't believe they didn't teach me in elementary school.  I knew the platypus was exceptional among mammals for its beak and eggs, but I never knew that some cold-blooded animals (ectotherms) were actually partially warm-blooded (regional endothermy is the technical name). 

I was doing a literature review of the effects of temperature on brain function and cognition, when I ran across this amazing literature. In a famous 1982 Science article, Francis Carey of WHOI demonstrated that swordfish had evolved a specialized organ that simply sat next to their brain and kept it warm by burning calories quickly.  This was important, he argued, because these fish rapidly dove to depths where the water temperature was 20 degrees (C) colder than their normal environment. Because brain function is important to these hunters, it seemed reasonable that it was worth it for them to evolve specialized organs to keep their brains warm.


Sound too fantastic? Since then, cranial endothermy has also been documented in some varieties of sharks and tuna.  Because these species are so far from one another (in an evolutionary sense) and many of their more closely related relatives didn't have brain heaters, its thought that these different groups evolved similar organs independently from one another. This would suggest that maintaining a relatively more stable brain temperature might have large benefits.  Now, does this apply to humans?...

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