Columbia University in the City of New York




How Genes Shape Behavior

From the lab of Andrés Bendesky, MD, PhD, Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

Dual betta fish circling to make an attack. These fish have been bred to be aggressive. In his lab, Dr. Bendesky is studying these fish to see whether their aggression can be traced back to any genetic markers, and whether equivalents of those markers could exist in people (Credit: iStockPhoto/Getty Images).

You have a complex brain compared to most animals on the tree of life.

How your brain got to be that way — and just how special it is — remains much of a mystery. The evolutionary history of the brain, from the simplest ones that emerged hundreds of millions of years ago, to Einstein’s unique cerebrum, is still be written.

Researchers at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute have a keen interest in how our brains are similar to those of other animals, and how they are different. Do humans have special genes that shape our brains in special ways? Or do creatures that look very different — humans and flies, for instance — have similar DNA controlling their brain development? And why do people behave differently from mice or worms in the first place?

To investigate evolution, we build new tools to study the behaviors of diverse creatures, and to investigate how genes shape the architecture of brains big and small. In addition to uncovering the origins of our ability to think creatively or solve complex problems, our work in this area has led to surprising findings that may further efforts to treat diseases like autism.

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