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Microcephaly and Normal IQ

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In my last article on brain size and IQ, I showed how people with half of their brains removed and people with microcephaly can have IQs in the normal/above average range. There is a pretty large amount of data out there on microcephalics and normal intelligence—even a family showing normal intelligence in two generations despite having dominantly inherited microcephaly.

Microcephaly is a condition in which an individual has a head circumference of 2 SD below the mean. Though most would think that would doom all microcephalics to low IQs, 15 percent of microcephalics have IQs in the normal range. This is normally associated with mental retardation, but this is a medical myth (Skoyles and Sagan, 2002: 239), though there are numerous cases of microcephalics having normal IQs (Dorman, 1991). Numerous studies show that it’s possible for normal people to have small brains. Giedd et al (1996) showed a wide variation in head circumference. Of the 104 individuals who had their heads scanned, volume for the cerebellum ranged from 735 cc in a 10 year old boy to 1470 cc in a 14 year old boy (Skoyles, 1999: 4, para 12). Though Giedd et al (1996) did not report total brain volumes in their subjects, brain volume can be inferred. Skoyles (1999; 4, para 12) writes:

The cerebral cortex makes up only 86.4% of brain volume when measured by MRI (Filipek, Richelme, Kennedy & Caviness, 1994), so the total brain volume of the 10-year-old would be larger at 850.7 cc. Brains at 10 years are about 4.4% smaller than adult size (Dekaban & Sadowsky, 1978), suggesting that that brain would grow to an adult size of 888 cc. Even using the lower figure of 80% cerebrum to brain ratio derived from anatomical studies suggests a figure of only 960 cc.

The variation of 888 cc to 960 cc depending on which value for the cerebrum to brain ratio you use still shows that people can have brains 450-300 cc lower than average and still be ‘normal’.

Researchers began noticing many cases of both individuals and families exhibiting features of microcephaly—but they had normal intelligence (Simila, 1970;Seemanova et al, 1985; Rossi et al, 1987Teebi et al, 1987; Sherrif and Hegab, 1988Desch et al, 1990Opitz and Holt, 1990Evans, 1991; Heney et al, 1991Green et al, 1995Rizzo and Pavone, 1995; Teebi and Kurash, 1996; Innis et al, 1997Kawame, Pagon, and Hudgens, 1997Abdel-Salam et al, 1999Digweed, Reis, and Sperling, 1999Woods, Bond, and Enard, 2005; Ghaoufari-Fard et al, 2015). This is a pretty huge blow to the brain size/IQ correlation, for if people with such small heads can have normal IQs, why do we have such large brains that leave us with such large problems (Skoyles and Sagan, 2002: 240-244)?

If we can have smaller heads—which would make childbirth easier and allow us to continue to have smaller pelves which would be conducive to endurance running since we are the running ape, why would brains have gotten so much larger from that of erectus (where modern people can have normal IQs with erectus-sized brains) if it is perfectly possible to have a brain on around the size of early erectus? In any event, these anomalies need an explanation, and Skoyles (1999) hypothesizes that people with smaller heads but normal IQs may have a lower capacity for expertise. This is something that I will look into in the future, as it may explain these anomalies, along with the true reason why our brains began increasing around 3 mya.

Sells (1977)—using the criteria of 2 SD below mean head size—showed that 1.9 percent of the children he tested (n=1009) had IQs indistinguishable from their normocephalic peers. Watemberg et al (2002) studied 1,393 patients. They found that almost half of their patients with microcephaly  (15.4% of their patients studies had microcephaly) had IQs within the normal limits, while among those with sub-normal intelligence, 30 percent had borderline IQs or were mildly mentally retarded (it’s worth noting that l-glutamate can raise IQ scores by 5-20 points in the mild to moderate mental deficiency; Vogel, Braverman and Draguns, 1966 review numerous lines of evidence that glutamate raises IQ in mentally deficient individuals). Sassaman and Zartler (1982) showed that 31.9 percent of microcephalics had normal intelligence, 6.9 percent of them had average intelligence.

Head circumference does not directly correlate with IQ in microcephalic patients (Baxter et al, 2009). Dorman (1991: 268) writes: “Decreased head size may or may not be associated with lowered intelligence, indicating that small head size by itself does not affect intelligence. The presence of subgroups of microcephalic persons who typically have normal intelligence is sufficient to rule out a causal relationship between head size and intellect. … It can be added that reduction in brain size without such structural pathology, as mayvoccur in some genetic conditions or evenvas a result of normal variation, does not
affect intelligence. 

Tenconi et al (1981) write: “We were able to examine five other members of this family (1-3; 11-1; 11-4; 11-5; 11-8) and found no abnormalities: they were of normal intelligence, head circumference, and ophthalmic evaluation. Members of the grandmother’s family who refused to be examined appeared to be of normal intelligence and head appearance and did not have any serious eye problems.

Stoler-Poria et al (2010) write: “There was a K-ABC cognitive score < 85 (signifying developmental delay) in two (10%) children from the study group and in one (5%) child from the control group: one of the children in the study group (the one with HC below − 3 SD) scored significantly below the normal range (IQ = 70), while the other scored in the borderline range (IQ = 83); the child from the control group also scored in the borderline range (IQ = 84).” Whereas Thelander and Pryor (1968) showed that individuals with head circumferences 2-2.6 SDs below the mean had average IQs, though the smaller their HC, the lower their IQ. Ashwal et al (2009: 891) write: “The students with microcephaly had a similar mean IQ to the normocephalic group (99.5 vs 105) but had lower mean academic achievement scores (49 vs 70).” So it seems that microcephalics can have normal IQs, but have lower academic achievement scores.

Primary microcephalics have higher IQs than secondary microcephalics (Cowie, 1987). Primary microcephaly is microcephaly that one is born with whereas secondary microcephaly is acquired.

There is one case study of a girl with microcephaly where Tan et al (2014) write: “Most recent measures of general intelligence (performed at 6½ years of age) reveal a below average full scale IQ of 75 with greatest impairment in processing speed. On the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence III Revised (for children 2 years 6 m – 7 years 3 m), she obtained a Verbal IQ of 83, Nonverbal IQ of 75, and Processing speed 71. On the Wechsler Individual Achievement Testing (WIAT) she showed significant struggles in secondary language on tasks of early reading (SS 60), word reading (SS 70), reading comprehension (SS 69) and struggles in math on the task of numerical operations (SS 61) (WPPSI – R and WIAT mean = 100 and SD = 15). Parents report subjectively that differences in development relative to her sisters are becoming more apparent with time.

It is not a foregone conclusion that if an individual has microcephaly that they will have a low IQ and be mentally retarded, as reviewed above, there are numerous cases of individuals with microcephaly and normal IQs, with this even being seen in families—that is, multiple families with normal IQs yet have microcephaly. Numerous people with Nijmegen breakage syndrome (a type of microcephaly) can have normal IQs. Rossi et al (1987) reported that for 6 Italian families (n=21 microcephalics) with autsomally inherited microcephaly, for those administered psychometric tests (n=12), all had normal IQs but one, with an IQ range of 99 to 112 for a mean of 99.3.

In conclusion, microcephalics can have normal IQs and live normal lives, despite having heads, on average, that are 2 SDs below the mean. These anomalies (and there are many, many more) need explaining. This is great evidence that a larger brain does not always mean a higher IQ, as well as yet more evidence that it was possible for Homo erectus to have an IQ in our range today, which means that we may not need brains our current size for our intellect and achievements. To conclude, I will provide a quote from Dorman (1991):

The normal intelligence found by SELLS in school children with small head size also militates against any straightforward relationship between diminished head size and lowered intelligence.

With the correlation between brain size and IQ being .4 (Gignac and Bates, 2017), this does not rule out the ‘outliers’ reviewed in this article. These cases deserve an explanation, for if large brains lead to high IQs, why do these people with heads significantly smaller have IQs in the normal range? (See Skoyles, 1999: 8, para 31 for an explanation for the brain size/IQ correlation.)

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