London, Nov 18: Recognising the basic structure of language is not unique to the human brain, researchers reveal, suggesting that we share certain brain areas with primates including monkeys.
The team led by Dr Ben Wilson and Professor Chris Petkov from Newcastle University in Britain used an imaging technique to explore the brain activity in humans and macaque monkeys.
They identified the evolutionary origins of cognitive functions in the brain that underpin language and allow us to evaluate orderliness in sequences of sounds.
Young children learn the rules of language as they develop, even before they are able to produce language.
"So, we used a 'made up' language first developed to study infants, which our lab has shown the monkeys can also learn," professor Petkov said.
The team first had the humans and monkeys listen to example sequences from the "made up" language, allowing them to hear what were correct orderings in the sequence of sounds.
They then scanned the brain activity of both species as they listened to new sequences.
The findings revealed that in both groups, a corresponding region of the brain - the ventral frontal and opercular cortex - responded to the order that both species had learned to expect.
These results suggest that the function of this frontal region, which is one of the areas involved in processing the order of words in a sentence in human language, is shared in both humans and primates, revealing its evolutionary origins.
This brain region seems to monitor the orderliness, or organisation, of what is heard.
It is an important cognitive function that provides a foundation for the more complex language abilities of humans.
These results provide first evidence that some of the functions of this brain area, which include understanding language in humans, are shared by other animals.
"This will help us answer questions on how we learn language and on what goes wrong when we lose language, for example after a brain injury, stroke or dementia," the authors noted in a paper appeared in the journal Nature Communications.