Science about human brain

brain geneMouse cerebral cortex (above): mouse embryos injected with the gene identified by scientist as key to human cognitive faculties grew larger brain regions and some developed the crinkled brain surface that humans have. Credit: Marta Florio and Wieland B. Huttner, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics

A strand of DNA that lies at the heart of what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom has been identified by researchers in Germany.

Scientists in Dresden found a gene that drives the expansion of the human brain and helps to make it the most complex structure in the universe.

Researchers believe the gene plays a pivotal role in human cognition by ramping up dramatically the number of neurons in the neocortex, a brain region that is central to reasoning, language and sensory perception.

The gene is found in modern humans, but was also carried by neanderthals, who had brains at least as large as ours, and the mysterious Denisovans, a group of human ancestors known only from a few bone fragments in Siberia.

Wieland Huttner, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, who led the research, said the finding came from 25 years of work on the problem. “Our ultimate goal has always been to identify the changes in the genome that were responsible for us humans having larger brains than other primates, ” he said.

The human brain has almost tripled in size over the past 7 million years into a 1, 300cc organ containing 100bn neurons that consume a whopping fifth of our energy. The most rapid growth occurred in the past 2 million years. Homo erectus walked the Earth 1.8 million years ago with a brain size half that of a modern human’s.

“What we now have is a gene that is characteristic of a 1.3 litre to 1.4 litre brain, and that makes it very exciting, ” Huttner said.

Tests on mouse embryos confirmed that the gene can have a profound impact on brain development. Embryos injected with the gene grew larger brain regions and some developed the crinkled brain surface that humans have. The folds allow more brain tissue to fit into the same sized skull.

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