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Evolution

This Gene May Underpin Our Brain’s Extraordinary Abilities

From the lab of Franck Polleux, PhD, Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

Cortical neuron decorated with thousands of synapses showing SRGAP2 (green) (Credit: Polleux Lab/Columbia's Zuckerman Institute).

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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