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The Genes That Build Our Brains — and May Drive Neuropsychiatric Diseases

By January 4, 2019No Comments

One of the most complicated parts of your body — your brain — takes decades to come into its own. Human brain development begins before we are born and continues well into late teenage years and even early adulthood.

Understanding this long and complex process is no easy feat. In a newly published study, which was itself several years in the making, researchers have now profiled how all our genes turn on and off in the human brain as it develops, from mere weeks after conception through to adulthood, and how some of these genes could play very early roles in the genesis of several major psychiatric and neurological diseases.

The study, led by researchers at Yale University, the Allen Institute and the University of Southern California and published last week in the journal Science, looked at tissue from 60 different postmortem brains, ranging in age from early in the prenatal period to a 64-year-old adult. The work came about in part through the BrainSpan consortium, a collaborative effort funded by the National Institutes of Health to map genes in the developing human brain.

The research team looked at the activity patterns of all our approximately 20,000 genes in these brain samples, either cell by cell, or across 16 different regions of the brain to map how gene activity tracks with human brain development.

They then homed in on the suite of genes that are thought to be linked to a variety of neurologial or psychiatric disorders — among them autism spectrum disorder, schizophreniaAlzheimer’s disease, ADHD and bipolar disorder — to better understand where and when these disorders may arise.

Knowing more about the very early stages of brain disease helps focus where researchers should look for therapeutic options for a given disorder, said Ed Lein, Ph.D., Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a division of the Allen Institute, and one of the lead authors on the study.

“The idea is we’re looking for the locus of disease in space and in time,” Lein said. “These results could help researchers who are studying these disorders know where to focus their attention.”