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Origins of the brain
Date:6/8/2008

One of the great scientific challenges is to understand the design principles and origins of the human brain. New research has shed light on the evolutionary origins of the brain and how it evolved into the remarkably complex structure found in humans.

The research suggests that it is not size alone that gives more brain power, but that, during evolution, increasingly sophisticated molecular processing of nerve impulses allowed development of animals with more complex behaviours.

The study shows that two waves of increased sophistication in the structure of nerve junctions could have been the force that allowed complex brains - including our own - to evolve. The big building blocks evolved before big brains.

Current thinking suggests that the protein components of nerve connections - called synapses - are similar in most animals from humble worms to humans and that it is increase in the number of synapses in larger animals that allows more sophisticated thought.

"Our simple view that 'more nerves' is sufficient to explain 'more brain power' is simply not supported by our study," explained Professor Seth Grant, Head of the Genes to Cognition Programme at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and leader of the project. "Although many studies have looked at the number of neurons, none has looked at the molecular composition of neuron connections. We found dramatic differences in the numbers of proteins in the neuron connections between different species".

"We studied around 600 proteins that are found in mammalian synapses and were surprised to find that only 50 percent of these are also found in invertebrate synapses, and about 25 percent are in single-cell animals, which obviously don't have a brain."

Synapses are the junctions between nerves where electrical signals from one cell are transferred through a series of biochemical switches to the next. However, synapses are not simply soldered joints, but mini-
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Contact: Don Powell
don@sanger.ac.uk
44-012-234-96928
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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