Mouse brains are tiny and smooth. Ferret brains are larger and convoluted. And ferrets, members of the weasel family, could provide the missing link in understanding how we humans acquired our big brains.
Children with microcephaly, whose brains are abnormally small, have a part in the story too. Microcephaly is notorious for its link to the Zika virus, but it can also be caused by mutations in various genes. Some of these genes have been shown to be essential for growth of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles higher-order thinking.
“I’m trained as a neurologist, and study kids with developmental brain diseases,” said Walsh in a press release from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which gave him a boost to his usual budget to support this work. “I never thought I’d be peering into the evolutionary history of humankind.” …
Most scientists and clinicians accept that the human microbiome impacts a person’s nutrition, immune system function, physical health and perhaps even mental illness, but exactly how or why is not well understood. Now, taking an evolutionary approach, a Boston Children’s Hospital infectious disease researcher suggests the host may play a more active role in controlling the microbiome than previously appreciated.
How did our distinctive brains evolve? What genetic changes, coupled with natural selection, gave us language? What allowed modern humans to form complex societies, pursue science, create art?
While we have some understanding of the genes that differentiate us from other primates, that knowledge cannot fully explain human brain evolution. But with a $10 million grant to some of Boston’s most highly evolved minds in genetics, genomics, neuroscience and human evolution, some answers may emerge in the coming years.
The Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group today announced the creation of an Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It will be led by Christopher A. Walsh, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
“To understand when and how our modern brains evolved, we need to take a multi-pronged approach that will reflect how evolution works in nature, and identifies how experience and environment affect the genes that gave rise to modern human behavior,” Walsh says. …
Starting in 2006, comparative genomic studies have identified small regions of the human genome known as Human Accelerated Regions, or HARs, that diverged relatively rapidly from those of chimpanzees — our closest living relatives — during human evolution.
Our genomes contain about 2,700 HAR sequences. And as reported today in Cell, these sequences are often active in the brain and contain a variety of mutations implicated in autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. …
Five people with an unusual pattern of brain folds have afforded a glimpse into how the human brain may have evolved its language capabilities.
How the human brain develops its hills and valleys—expanding its surface area and computational capacity—has been difficult to study. Mice, the staple of scientific research, lack folds in their brains.
Christopher Walsh, MD, PhD, head of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital, runs a brain development and genetics clinic and has spent 25 years studying people in whom the brain formation process goes awry. Some brains are too small (microcephaly). Some have folds, or gyri, that are too broad and thick (pachygyria). Some are smooth, lacking folds altogether (lissencephaly). And some have an abnormally large number of small, thin folds—known as polymicrogyria.
In 2005, studying people with polymicrogyria, Walsh and colleagues identified a mutation in a gene known as GPR56, a clue that this gene helps drive the formation of folds in the cortex of the human brain.
In a study published in today’s issue of Science, Walsh and his colleagues focused on five people whose brain MRIs showed polymicrogyria, but just in one location—near a large, deep furrow known as the Sylvian fissure, which includes the brain’s primary language area. …