Research in the News: Evolution of thought: new thinking on how the human brain developed

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Horizontal layers and vertical columns in the cerebral cortex are visualized here by fluorescent probes of different colors attached to the specific genetic markers (Courtesy Rakic lab, Nature, 2009). The organization of the cerebral cortex and genetic triggers of neuronal migration are keys to understanding the evolution of the human brain.

The past decade has brought scientists closer to explaining one of evolution’s crowning achievements: the human cerebral cortex, which is responsible for humans’ capacity for abstract thinking, language, and creativity.

The journal Neuron, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, invited Yale neurobiologist Pasko Rakic, one of the world’s experts on development, architecture, and function of the cerebral cortex, and colleague Daniel Geschwind of the University of California-Los Angeles to discuss the genetic and morphological changes over 300 million years of mammalian evolution that led to the human brain.

The fundamental processes — many identified by Rakic and his colleagues at Yale — occur in early fetal development. A few crucial molecular events trigger expression of key regulatory genes and, ultimately, the peculiarly human neuronal migration and columnar organization of cerebral cortex, which allowed for a massive expansion of this area during evolution.

Not coincidentally, note the researchers, missteps during these developmental processes are linked to human specific diseases such as schizophrenia and autism. To read more, visit the journal’s website.

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