Oxygen and the Spark of Human Brain Evolution: a Complex Systems Account


Scientific theories on the functioning and dysfunction of the human brain require a good understanding of both its development — before and after birth, and through maturation to adulthood — and its evolution from the ancestral primate brain. Adopting a complex-systems approach, here we propose that the apparent uniqueness of humans’ cognitive capacities might best be understood as emerging from multiple nested “virtuous cycles.” In particular, we propose that the intimate link that exists between oxygen metabolic loops, cortical expansion, and ultimately cognitive and social demands is a key driver of genetic developmental programs for the human brain. Overall, our proposed evolutionary model makes explicit mechanistic links between metabolism, molecular and cellular brain heterogeneity, and behaviour that may in time provide a clearer understanding of brain developmental trajectories and their disorders.