The study compares epigenetic changes to DNA in the cerebellums of humans, chimpanzees and monkeys

The study compares epigenetic changes to DNA in the cerebellums of humans, chimpanzees and monkeys

The cerebellum – a part of the brain primarily recognized for its role in coordinating movement – has undergone evolutionary changes that may have contributed to human culture, language, and tool use. This new discovery was featured in a study by Elaine Guevara of Duke University and colleagues, published May 6 in the journal Science. PLOS Genetics.

Scientists studying how humans develop their remarkable ability to think and learn have often focused on the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain vital to executive functions, such as moral reasoning and decision-making. Recently, however, the cerebellum has begun to receive more attention for its role in human cognition. Guevara and his team studied the development of the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex by looking for molecular differences between humans, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques. Specifically, they examined the genomes of the two types of brain tissue in the three species to find epigenetic differences. These are modifications that do not change the DNA sequence but can affect genes on and off and can be inherited by future generations.

Compared with chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, humans showed greater genetic differences in the cerebellum than in the prefrontal cortex, highlighting the importance of the cerebellum in human brain development. Epigenetic differences were particularly evident in genes involved in brain development, encephalitis, lipid metabolism, and synaptic plasticity—the strengthening or weakening of connections between neurons depending on how often they are used.

The epigenetic differences identified in the new study are relevant to understanding how the human brain works and its ability to adapt and make new connections. These genetic and epigenetic differences may also be involved in aging and disease. Previous studies have shown that human and chimpanzee epigenetic differences in the prefrontal cortex are linked to genes implicated in psychiatric disorders and neurodegeneration. Overall, the new study emphasizes the importance of including the cerebellum when studying human brain development.

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Guevara adds: “Our results support an important role of the cerebellum in human brain development and suggest that previously identified epigenetic features that characterize the human neocortex are not unique to the neocortex.”

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