In DepthDevelopmental Genetics

New tools offer clues to how the human brain takes shape

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Science  10 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6364, pp. 705-706
DOI: 10.1126/science.358.6364.705

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Summary

Our brains are bigger, relative to body size, than other animals’, but it’s not just size that matters. Elephants and whales have bigger brains, so comparing anatomy or even genomes of humans and other animals reveals little about the genetic and developmental changes that sent our brains down such a different path. Geneticists have identified a few key differences in the genes of humans and apes. But specifically how human variants of such genes shape our brain in development—and how they drove its evolution—have remained largely mysterious. Now, researchers are deploying new tools to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the unique features of our brain. At a symposium at The American Society of Human Genetics in Orlando, Florida, last month, they reported zooming in on the genes expressed in a single brain cell, as well as panning out to understand how genes foster connections among far-flung brain regions. Researchers are also experimenting with brain “organoids,” tiny structured blobs of lab-grown tissue, to detail the molecular mechanisms that govern the folding and growth of the embryonic human brain.