Big Brained Animals Are Sicker


An evolutionary tradeoff exists between brain size and immunity, according to new research.

Bigger brained animals may be more vulnerable to a barrage of illnesses than species whose evolution has selected for immunity over braininess.

If sheer brain size were the best gauge of intelligence, whales would be the smartest animals on Earth. As far as we know, they're not, so what gives?

“Organisms have to deal with the limited energy they have available -- they cannot have it all,” Alexander Kotrschal of Stockholm University’s Department of Biology told Discovery News. Kotrschal and colleagues Niclas Kolm and Dustin Penn conducted the research, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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Kotrschal explained that “investing more in one costly organ, such as the brain, will deduct energy away from other costly organs, like gut, muscle and fat. Humans have quite small guts compared to other primates. In fact, across primates: the larger the brain, the smaller the gut.”

The researchers decided to investigate whether larger brains also could lead to reduced immune responses. They decided upon guppies as a model animal, since these little fish have a fast average time between two generations and have been well studied. Guppies also share many critical molecular pathways with humans, other mammals and numerous additional animals.

The scientists examined the relationship between brain size and immune response to scale tissue grafting in lab-grown Trinidadian guppies that were artificially selected for large or small relative brain size.

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As predicted, the smaller-brained individuals of both sexes mounted a much stronger immune response than did those with bigger brains. Having a big brain was not all bad, though. Earlier research found that female guppies with more brainpower had a cognitive advantage over others.

Kotrschal explained: “They were better at learning a numerical learning task than small-brained females.”

As the studies indicate, brain size can differ not only among species, but also among individuals of the same species. Relative brain size, or how the brain measures when compared to the rest of the entire body, is the most important factor -- including very tiny creatures, such as ants and honeybees, which are considered to be quite brainy and intelligent.

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