What Causes Our Brains to be Human? New Study Reveals Brain Gene Similarities

First Posted: Nov 17, 2015 10:49 AM EST

What makes our brain human? Scientists are beginning to unravel the genetic code underlying its function, and have found a small set of molecular patterns that dominate gene expression in the human brain.

"So much research focuses on the variations between individuals, but we turned that question on its head to ask, what makes us similar?" said Ed Lein, one of the researchers, in a news release. "What is the conserved element among all of us that must give rise to our unique cognitive abilities and human traits?"

In this latest study, the researchers examined data from the publicly available Allen Human Brain Atlas. They then examined how gene expression varies across hundreds of functionally distinct brain regions in six human brains. They ranked genes by the consistency of their expression patterns across individuals, and then analyzed the relationship of these genes to one another to brain function and association with disease.

More specifically, the researchers looked at gene patterning that we all share, rather than how we differ. The scientists used the data to quantify how consistent the patterns of expression for various genes are across human brains.

The scientists found that most of the patterns of gene usage across 20,000 genes could be characterized by just 32 expression patterns. Surprisingly, genes associated with neurons were most conserved across different species, while those for the supporting glial cells showed larger differences.

"The human brain is phenomenally complex, so it is quite surprising that a small number of patterns can explain most of the gene variability across the brain," said Christof Koch, one of the researchers. "There could easily have been thousands of patterns, or none at all. This gives us an exciting way to look further at the functional activity that underlies the uniquely human brain."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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