Researchers Identify Brain Differences Between Species
Continued strides in the understanding evolution of the brain and behavior 200 years after Darwin’s birth
CHICAGO — New tools are enabling researchers to identify neural similarities and differences between species. The findings may help to explain faculties, like language, and diseases, like Parkinson’s, that are unique to humans. They were presented at Neuroscience 2009, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news on brain science and health.
In the 200 years since Charles Darwin’s birth, scientists have learned much about the evolution of the brain, but many questions remain. Researchers are examining how the brain adapts to the environment and how the nervous system developed from a simple set of circuits to an intricate, stratified structure. These findings help explain the variation in behaviors in the animal kingdom and the rise of complex cognitive functions.
Research released today shows that:
• The patterns of genes expressed in human and primate brains differ. These variations offer insight into diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, which affect humans but not closely related animals (Todd Preuss, PhD, abstract 225.1, see attached summary).
Other recent findings discussed at the meeting show:
• New technologies that allow researchers to examine and compare the genomes and proteomes of multiple species help explain the evolution of complex brains and behaviors (Seth Grant, MB BS, see attached speaker’s summary).
• The brain uses similar strategies to process visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli, suggesting it uses a set of common mechanisms to adapt to the natural environment (Tatyana Sharpee, PhD, see attached speaker’s summary).
• Many aspects of neuroscience can be understood in evolutionary terms, from the complexity of brain structure to the intricacies of animal behavior (John Hildebrand, PhD, see attached speaker’s summary).
“While Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection is the foundation of biology, until recently there was no information about molecules or genes, and our understanding of brains was in its infancy. Today, we appreciate that the brain is not a static entity, but a dynamic process that continuously shifts and changes over time," said Leah Krubitzer, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, an expert on the evolution of the brain. "We also know that the behavior of individuals and populations substantially alters the physical environment in which an individual develops — and thus alters the brain itself.”
This research was supported by national funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations.
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