Suzana Herculano-Houzel shrunk the human brain by 14 billion neurons — by developing a new way to count them.

Why you should listen

How many neurons make a human brain? For years, the answer has been (give or take) 100 billion. But neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel decided to count them herself. Her research approach involved dissolving four human brains (donated to science) into a homogeneous mixture -- in her lab at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences in Rio de Janeiro, they call it "brain soup." She then took a sample of the mix, counted the number of cell nuclei belonging to neurons, and scaled that up. Result: the human brain has about 86 billion neurons, 14 billion fewer than assumed -- but intriguingly, far more than other animals, relative to brain size.

She suggests that it was the invention of cooking by our ancestors -- which makes food yield much more metabolic energy -- that allowed humans to develop the largest primate brain. She's now working on elephant and whale brains to test her hypothesis.

What others say

“It took me a couple of months to make peace with this idea that I was going to take somebody's brain or an animal's brain and turn it into soup. ... It's really just one more method that's not any worse than just chopping your brain into little pieces.” —

Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s TED talk

Suzana Herculano-Houzel on the TED Blog

Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Lessons from brain soup: Suzana Herculano-Houzel at TEDGlobal 2013

June 12, 2013

For decades, scientists said that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons. However, when neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel hunted for the source of this often-quoted number, she couldn’t locate one. So she set out to count herself … by making brain soup. She brings a vial of brain soup with her onto the TEDGlobal 2013 stage. This […]

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Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Listening to Nature: The speakers in Session 5 at TEDGlobal 2013

June 12, 2013

This session asks us to pay closer attention to what nature has to tell us — both about itself and about the world around us. We’ll investigate a variety of sources — from the soundscapes of ecosystems to the neurons of cockroaches to the extraordinary sex lives of animals. Here are the speakers who appeared […]

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