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Encephalization, neuronal excess, and neuronal index in rodents

Herculano-Houzel S (2007) Anat Rec 290, 1280-1287.

Encephalization, or brain size larger than expected from body size, has long been considered to correlate with improved cognitive abilities across species and even intelligence. However, it is still unknown what characteristics of relatively large brains underlie their improved functions. Here, it is shown that more encephalized rodent species have the number of neurons expected for their brain size, but a larger number of neurons than expected for their body size. The number of neurons in excess relative to body size might be available for improved associative functions and, thus, be responsible for the cognitive advantage observed in more encephalized animals. It is further proposed that, if such neuronal excess does provide for improved cognitive abilities, then the total number of excess neurons in each species—here dubbed the neuronal index—should be a better indicator of cognitive abilities than the encephalization quotient (EQ). Because the neuronal index is a function of both the number of neurons expected from the size of the body and the absolute number of neurons in the brain, differences in this parameter across species that share similar EQs might explain why these often have different cognitive capabilities, particularly when comparing across mammalian orders.

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