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10/12/2009 - New Center at Yale Will Explore What Makes the Human Brain Unique

(Originally publlished by Yale University)

October 12, 2009

Leveraging more than $25 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Yale School of Medicine has created a new research center to study how our brain evolved uniquely human traits. Named the Yale Center for Human Brain Development and Evolution, the Center will be part of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale (KIN).

The Center's founders hope that the center will identify new treatment options for many forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disease. Key will be to help create a transcriptome atlas of the developing human brain and launch a multi-disciplinary search for genetic changes responsible for the evolution over the last 100 million years of the cerebral cortex, the brain region responsible for human intelligence.

Pasko RakicPasko Rakic, Director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale and chair of the Yale School of Medicine's Department of Neurobiology.

“We are looking at the biological basis of what makes us unique,” said Pasko Rakic, director of KIN and chair of the Department of Neurobiology. Understanding the cerebral cortex has been the life work of Rakic, the co-recipient of the prestigious $1 million Kavli Prize for Neuroscience last year. The quest for the biological roots of human cognition is the primary mission of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale, established in 2004 with a generous endowment from the Kavli Foundation.

Knowledge of human biology and diseases has been greatly enhanced by the study of model organisms from worms to mice, but these models have limits when trying to understand an organ as complex as the human cerebral cortex, Rakic believes.

“Given that the cerebral cortex is the center of extraordinary human cognitive abilities, it is surprising how little has been done to research its emergence,” Rakic said. “It appears sometimes we are so seduced by similarities between species that we neglect the differences.”

Rakic outlined his thinking about the origin of species-specific distinction of the cerebral cortex in an article published this week in a special issue of the journal Nature Review Neuroscience dedicated to the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species.”

The new Yale center will be part of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale and will include faculty from the Departments of Neurobiology, Genetics, and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and the new Genomics Sequencing Center at Yale’s West Campus. The scientists will collaborate on a variety of research projects supported by NIH, Kavli and McDonnel Foundations.

Such research efforts at Yale have already offered major insights into the human brain.

For instance, Nenad Sestan, a professor of neurobiology, and colleagues reported in a recent edition of the journal Neuron that they have discovered human-specific networks of gene expressions in areas of the developing cerebral cortex involved in higher cognition, speech and language.

Rakic, in this week’s edition of the journal Nature, describes the molecular mechanism that allows for neurons from different classes of stem cells to intermix and form columns crucial to the functioning of the developing cerebral cortex.

Other recent studies include a comparison between gene expression and cellular events at the early developmental stages of human embryos with that of other species.

These successes have helped the Yale Center for Human Brain Development and Evolution obtain grants from three separate institutes of the National Institutes of Health.
The center has ambitious goals.

Rakic, Sestan and colleagues plan to analyze tissue from various stages of development in different mammalian species to discover the genes that are crucial to development and evolution of the cerebral cortex. This approach should identify the genetic causes of many forms of higher brain function disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disease, which arise early in brain development, Rakic said.

In cooperation with the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the University of Southern California, Yale researchers led by Sestan will identify all genes and non-coding transcripts in the developing human brain. Other studies will use advanced genomics technologies to compare gene activity in developing human and non-human primate brains.

International collaborators will include Oxford University in England and the Croatian Institute for Brain Research.

“Such interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and international efforts should allow researchers to pinpoint the genetic changes that account for evolution of the human’s mental prowess,” Rakic said.

Original press release

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