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March 30, 2009

Gorilla, Chimp Strength Secret in Brain and Muscle


Evolutionary biologist Alan Walker, a professor at Penn State University, argues that humans may lack the strength of chimps because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles. Our fine motor control prevents great feats of strength, but allows us to perform delicate and uniquely human tasks.

Walker's hypothesis stems partly from a finding by primatologist Ann MacLarnon. MacLarnon showed that, relative to body mass, chimps have much less grey matter in their spinal cords than humans have. Spinal grey matter contains large numbers of motor neurons—nerves cells that connect to muscle fibers and regulate muscle movement. More grey matter in humans means more motor neurons, Walker proposes. And having more motor neurons means more muscle control.


If augmentations were made to enable better brain and nerve control of muscles then people could retain fine motor control while being able to unleash more strength when necessary.

There will be human trials of surgically implanted stem cells to reverse paralysis in New Zealand.

The switch for turning stem cells into muscle cells has been found. This can lead to muscle stem cells being able to regenerate muscle tissue. You could also add muscle tissue.


Great apes, with their all-or-nothing muscle usage, are explosive sprinters, climbers and fighters, but not nearly as good at complex motor tasks. In other words, chimps make lousy guests in china shops.

In addition to fine motor control, Walker suspects that humans also may have a neural limit to how much muscle we use at one time. Only under very rare circumstances are these limits bypassed—as in the anecdotal reports of people able to lift cars to free trapped crash victims.

"Add to this the effect of severe electric shock, where people are often thrown violently by their own extreme muscle contraction, and it is clear that we do not contract all our muscle fibers at once," Walker writes. "So there might be a degree of cerebral inhibition in people that prevents them from damaging their muscular system that is not present, or not present to the same degree, in great apes."

FURTHER READING
A previous look at gene therapy for enhanced strength and speed.

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