Crucial factors in the evolution of the human brain

September, 2012

Two recent studies comparing gene expression in the brains of human and other animals reveal a key protein for brain size and others for connectivity and regulation.

Genetic comparisons have pinpointed a specific protein as crucial for brain size, both between and within species. Another shows how genetic regulation in the frontal lobes distinguishes the human brain from that of closely related species, and points to two genes in particular as critical.

The protein determining brain size

Comparison of genome sequences from humans and other animals has revealed what may be a crucial protein in the development of the human brain. The analysis found that humans have more than 270 copies of a protein called DUF1220 — more than any other animal studied — and that the number of copies in a species seems to match how close they are to us. Chimpanzees, for example, have 125, and gorillas 99, while marmosets have only 30, and mice just one.

Moreover, comparison of humans with microcephaly and macrocephaly reveals that those with microcephaly (“small brain”) have lower numbers of this protein than normal for humans, and those with macrocephaly (“large brain”) have higher numbers. Copy numbers of the protein were also correlated with gray matter volume in humans without these brain disorders.

In other words, evidence from three lines of inquiry converge on DUF1220 copy number being associated with brain size.

Differences in gene expression and connectivity

But the development of the human brain is not only about size. The human brain is more complex, more connected, than the brains of most other animals. Another genetic analysis has been comparing gene activity in humans, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, using post-mortem brain tissue of three regions in particular – the frontal cortex, hippocampus and striatum.

Gene expression in the frontal lobe of humans showed a striking increase in molecular complexity, with much more elaborate regulation and connection. The biggest differences occurred in the expression of human genes involved in plasticity.

One gene in particular stood out as behaving differently in the human brain. This gene — called CLOCK, for obvious reasons — is thought to be the master regulator of our body’s clocks. The finding suggests it has influence beyond this role. Interestingly, this gene is often disrupted in mood disorders such as depression and bipolar syndrome.

A second important distinction was how many more connections there were in human brains among networks that included the language genes FOXP1 and FOXP2.

In comparison to all this, gene expression in the caudate nucleus was very similar across all three species.

The findings point to the role of learning (the genes involved in plasticity) and language in driving human brain evolution. They also highlight the need to find out more about the CLOCK gene.