By Joel Hall
Science students will have a lot to be excited about when Dr. Jared Taglialatela takes his new position as an assistant professor of biology at Clayton State University in the fall.
Taglialatela, whose research focuses on communication between primates, will be featured in The History Channel's new series, "Evolve," which will air 13 episodes this summer.
Each episode focuses on a different sense or behavior -- such as hearing, sight, and communication -- and how it has been studied over time. Taglialatela will be featured in an upcoming episode titled, "The Evolution of Communication."
In the March 2008 issue of "Current Biology," Taglialatela, and a team of scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, made new connections between the origins of chimp and human speech in the article "Communicative Signaling Activates 'Broca's Homolog in Chimpanzees." Using positron emission tomography (PET) -- a type of nuclear imaging used to identify tumors in humans -- Taglialatela studied the brain activity of chimpanzees during close-range communication.
The discovery, he said, is that the origins of primate speech and human speech may have more ties than once thought.
"We were able to see what was going on in the chimp's brain as far as the activity is concerned," said Taglialatela. "After we image them, we can see what parts of the brain are more active than others. We found that there is a certain area of the chimp brain in the left hemisphere that is closely related to the 'Broca's area, which is critical for speech production [in humans]."
The "Broca's area" of the brain, named after the 19th century physician, Paul Broca, is larger in the left hemisphere of the human brain than the right, and is more active while performing speech, or sign language. Through the use of radioactive tracers, Taglialatela discovered similar brain activity in chimps who used their right arm to make gestures.
The research also suggests that animals -- once thought to only be able to communicate base emotions, such as fear, hunger, and anger -- are capable of voluntary emotional responses, just as humans are. Taglialatela said the research is ground-breaking, because for many years, primate communication has been studied from a distance.
Studies done in this way are "like somebody from a different country coming to your dinner table and calling everything that you talked about food vocalizations," said Taglialatela. "I think that there is a lot more to learn with this close-range, face-to-face type of communication.
"It sort of really forces us to look close at this dichotomy ... that animals are involuntary and emotional and that humans are the only ones that have this voluntary control," Taglialatela continued. "[The research] suggests that there is more going on than that."
Taglialatela said while the attention his research is getting from the science community is overwhelming at times, he hopes the buzz will get more Clayton State University students involved in research opportunities at the college.
"It's nice to spend your time studying something that you think is exciting and that someone else thinks is exciting enough to put into a TV show," said Taglialatela. "The reason why I took the job there is because I want to get more undergraduates involved in the research, and this may facilitate that."