A tug-of-war between the two sides of the brain causes it to become asymmetrical, according to research published today in the journal Neuron. Asymmetry in the brain is thought to be important to enable the two hemispheres to specialise and operate more efficiently.
Left-right asymmetry is present in the brains of most animals and is first evident at the time of early brain development. However, until now, scientists did not know the mechanisms that bring it about. Now, in a study funded primarily by the Wellcome Trust, researchers have shown that a competition between the two sides causes this asymmetry.
By studying brain development in zebrafish, PhD student Jenny Regan and her colleagues in Professor Stephen Wilson's team at UCL (University College London) have shown that a protein known as Fgf8 acts as a magnet to attract nerve cells to one side of the brain. .
"Fgf8 is found in both sides of the brain, leading to a 'tug-of-war' competition between the two sides to attract the migrating group of nerve cells," says Dr Regan. "This isn't a fair fight, however Fgf8 on the left-hand side has an ally to help it win the battle."
A second protein, known as Nodal, is present only on the left and teams up with Fgf8 to attract the group of nerve cells, triggering a cascade of events that lead to asymmetric development of the brain, with neurons on the left making different connections to those on the right. The combined action of Fgf8 and Nodal ensures that when the asymmetry develops, it is usually in the same direction this helps to explain why there is consistent handedness between individuals. Nodal is known to also play a role in other areas of the body where asymmetry occurs, such as the heart and positioning of internal organs.
If Nodal is inhibited, the competition is fairer and the group of nerve cells has an equal probability of migrating to the right or left side, but a bias in the direction of migrat
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