A strand of DNA that lies at the heart of what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom has been identified by researchers in Germany. Scientists in Dresden found a gene that drives the expansion of the human brain and helps to make it the most complex structure in the universe. Researchers believe the gene plays a pivotal role in human cognition by ramping up dramatically the number of neurons in the neocortex, a brain region that is central to reasoning, language and sensory perception. The gene is found in modern humans, but was also carried by Neanderthals, who had brains at least as large as ours, and the mysterious Denisovans, a group of human ancestors known only from a few bone fragments in Siberia.
Wieland Huttner, who led the research, said the finding came from 25 years of work on What we now have is a gene that is characteristic of a 1.3 lit to 1.4 lit brain, and that makes it very exciting,” Huttner said. Huttner’s group is now keen to breed mice that carry the gene into adulthood to see how their brains develop, and crucially to see whether any changes boost their intelligence, memory and learning skills.