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Watch the First 3D Scan of This Ancient Monkey Brain Spin Endlessly in Neon

Today, in science-goes-vaporwave.
July 3, 2015, 9:00am
GIF by Emanuel Maiberg. Source: YouTube

Today in science-goes-vaporwave, I'm pleased to present this neon CGI nightmare of a digitized monkey brain.

Besides being a prime example of when research meets the cough syrup-soaked world of digital detritus, the computerized brain is also our first look at what's inside the oldest known skull of an "Old World" monkey—a family of primates that includes baboons and macaques. So, not only is it trippy as hell, but it's scientifically important too.

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The skull of Victoriapithecus was found on an island in Lake Victoria in Kenya in 1997. The skull dates back 15 million years, making it the oldest example of an Old World monkey skeleton we have. Taking a look at its brain could help answer some important questions about the evolution of monkeys. But before now, scientists had only estimated the size of its brain using casts of the skull.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Duke University, and New Mexico State University took high resolution 3D scans of the brain composed of computer-processed X-ray images. The scans revealed that the brain is small compared to modern day monkeys, but its olfactory bulb—the part of the brain that processes smell—is actually much bigger. And, despite its size, the brain appears to be very complex, with many folds and wrinkles.

"The pattern of gyrification on the brain is completely representative of living monkeys today," Lauren Gonzales, lead researcher of the paper, told me. "So, that would suggest that as of 15 million years ago, when this thing lived, this brain complexity that defines Old World monkeys today had already been established."

A paper describing their work was published today in Nature Communications.

Photo courtesy of Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Digitizing the brain wasn't an easy process, Gonzales told me. In 2007, researchers from the Max Planck Insitute sent a high resolution computed tomography (CT) scanner to Kenya so the skull could be digitally and non-invasively imaged in detail. The initial scanning process took a long time due to the number of fossils that were being scanned along with the skull. In the following years, the scans were analyzed and the brain's dimensions were calculated by the researchers.

"Very little is known about Old World monkey brain evolution, so we're hoping to continue looking at different trends in these monkeys," Gonzales said. "It would be very interesting to see if brain size increased independently in different groups, and just to figure out what is going on in the brain with later Old World monkeys."

Here's hoping that Gonzales and her colleagues remember to keep their future work as equally GIF-able as their weird-ass spinning monkey brain.