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$10M Harvard, Children's Hospital Center To Delve Into What Made Our Brains Unique

In this 2013 photo, a researcher holds a human brain in a laboratory at Northwestern University's cognitive neurology and Alzheimer's disease center. (Scott Eisen/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this 2013 photo, a researcher holds a human brain in a laboratory at Northwestern University's cognitive neurology and Alzheimer's disease center. (Scott Eisen/AP)

It's an age-old question: What makes humans unique? Our brains, of course, you might answer — they let us think, feel, create. But what makes our brains the way they are?

A new research center on brain evolution will try to find answers to that question in our genes, and its work may yield clues to disorders like autism as well.

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group on Wednesday announced the Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It's funded by $10 million over four years -- and potentially $30 million over eight years — from the frontiers group.

"This is one of the biggest problems in neuroscience — where do we come from, and how do we have these special abilities that humans have?" says the center's leader, Dr. Christopher Walsh. "And so we're trying to understand that by studying genomes and human neurons."

But why study human brain evolution, not how our brains currently work? Those two issues are somewhat interrelated, Walsh says: Since evolution changes our genome, our unique human abilities — language, art — must be linked to those changes, which occurred over many thousands of years.

"We're hoping that we can learn a lot about ourselves by trying to understand how changes in the genome have been translated into these tremendous neurological abilities," Walsh says.

Another important reason for studying human brain evolution: New insight into how our brains and DNA evolved may lead to important discoveries about brain diseases like epilepsy and autism spectrum disorders.

"There's a lot of evidence that intellectual disabilities and certain forms of autism spectrum disorders reflect abnormalities in the way genes are activated in the brain," Walsh says. "We need to learn a lot more about that in order to understand more about what causes these conditions and what we might be able to do to help them."

Along with Dr. Walsh, who studies brain diseases, the new center's two other lead researchers are Dr. David Reich, who sequences and analyzes ancient DNA, and Dr. Michael Greenberg, who studies gene expression and regulation.

"We're tremendously excited about [the new center] because the timing is very apt," Walsh says. "We have the ability to sequence even ancient DNA that's dug out of a bone that's been buried for tens of thousands of years. We have the ability finally to be able to sequence that and understand the diversity of human history.”

The center was created through a worldwide competition that evaluated groups based on "coherence of the team, their scientific ideas and the likely impact of the team’s work," according to Dr. Tom Shalak, founding executive director of The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which searches for and funds innovative research projects.

"The hardest challenge for us was selecting between multiple really competitive groups," Shalak says.

The three labs will work as a team, he says, and may eventually bring in other collaborators and team members as the work progresses forward.

“This is really exploring totally new territory,” Shalak says. “As the leaders see what the data is showing them, as they explore the new territory, they will have the ability to head off in that new direction.”

Eojin Choi is a CommonHealth intern.

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