SANS2020 Keynote Speaker Prof Paul Manger

Prof. Paul Manger will address the SANS virtual symposium on 20 November

Why study brains and behaviour of different mammals?

The majority of neuroscience research is focussed on 3 species, rat, mouse and human. The general aim is to understand the basis of human neural function and dysfunction, and to develop therapeutics or interventions; however, over 80% of potential therapeutics developed in rodent models do not translate to the human condition, i.e. these rodent models are inefficient. Comparative neuroscience research does not directly aim to discover cures to human neural dysfunctions, rather, comparative studies: (1) may guide the translation of data generated in rodent models to humans; (2) may reveal more appropriate model animals for the study of specific human neural dysfunctions; (3) provide data relevant to understanding the animals under investigation that may lead to improved conservation and management strategies; and (4) may inform us of the processes that have led to the evolution of the human brain, enhancing our understanding of ourselves and our existence. The African continent houses 25% of the world’s Eutherian mammal species, making the mammalian neural biodiversity of the continent a great natural resource for understanding processes of brain evolution, with the potential to reveal model animals more suitable for use in the investigation of human neural dysfunction than laboratory rodents. Here I will present two examples of ongoing from research in my laboratory demonstrating how comparative research can: (1) greatly benefit human health on a global scale; and (2) revolutionize conservation efforts on a continental scale. Novel observations regarding sleep in large diurnal mammals have led to a new understanding of the timing of sleep, how this relates to the environment, why we sleep too much in the industrialized world, and how we may improve sleep and alleviate symptoms of sleep disorders. The brain of the plains zebra indicates that zebras are the key species of the mass migrations of large mammals on the African savannahs. Understanding the plains zebra brain, how this relates to migratory behaviours, and expanding our knowledge of plains zebra migrations in Africa can lead to major changes in the way conservation measures are implemented, to the benefit of all flora and fauna dependent upon these migrations for survival.


Paul R. Manger is a Professor in Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research focus is on the evolution of brain and behaviour – neuroethology – of African mammals. He and his colleagues and students examine the structure of African and other mammalian brains to investigate how brains change and how they stay the same in different phylogenetic lineages and in mammals showing major morphological variations. In this sense, Manger has studied brains from very small mammals (such as Mus minutoides, with a brain weighing in at 275 mg) through to the brains of African elephants (which weigh it at around 5 kg). These studies are building a fundamental understanding of the processes of brain evolution and how they relate to behaviour in the mammals. In order to undertake this type of broad-based comparative neuroscience, Manger has established the first major brain bank in the southern hemisphere, and has collected the most well prepared specimens of mammal brains from over 150 species, allowing for the use of modern neuroanatomical methods. In addition to this, Manger and colleagues are studying sleep in free-roaming mammals, and use sleep as one of the key behaviours that can be related to evolution of the structure of the brain. This line of research is providing numerous novel understandings of the brain and behaviour in mammals. Perhaps the most controversial work published by Manger is that regarding evolution of the brain of whales and dolphins, where he proposes a thermogenetic hypothesis for the evolution of large brains in cetaceans, rather than the standard intellect-based hypotheses. While this work has earned him some derision, ongoing research in his laboratory continues to support the thermogenesis hypothesis, with many researchers in the field beginning to accept this concept as an instructive example in understanding brain evolution. Manger obtained his BSc Hons in 1989 from the University of Queensland, Australia. After completing his PhD at the University of Queensland in 1994, researching the neural, anatomical and behavioural basis of electroreception in the platypus and echidna, he was employed as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Irvine in the laboratory of the late Prof. E.G. Jones. Following this, Manger did post-doctoral stints at the University of California, Davis and University of California, Los Angeles, before being employed as a Guest researcher at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Manger was employed at the level of Senior Lecturer in the School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand in 2002, was promoted to Reader in 2006 and finally to Full Research Professor in 2012. Manger is on the editorial board of the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy and Frontiers in Neuroanatomy and has published over 230 papers in international peer-reviewed scientific journals and has penned 12 chapters in books, with this body of work earning a H-index of 46. Manger’s recent research has focussed on how to improve sleep in humans and how to conserve the biodiversity of the African Savannah, projects that have emerged from his studies in the comparative neurosciences.