Newly discovered RNA steers brain development
A newly discovered class of RNA molecules helps elucidate the long-standing scientific question of how a person’s external experiences turn on the genes that over time help shape the connections among cells that make up the human brain. Called enhancer RNAs, these molecules operate globally throughout the genome within neurons.
These findings reveal a new and foundational way that neurons regulate gene activity in response to external stimuli. There is mounting evidence that this particular process of regulation is at the heart of many disorders of cognition, such as autism spectrum disorders.
Amid a network of blood vessels and star-shaped support cells, neurons in the brain signal each other and form synaptic connections.
Image courtesy of National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
BOSTON, Mass. (April 14, 2010) — How does the brain work? This question is one of the greatest scientific mysteries, and neurobiologists have only recently begun to piece together the molecular building blocks that enable human beings to be “thinking” animals.
One fundamental property of the mammalian brain is that it continues to develop after birth, and one of the biggest drivers of the formation of new links between neurons is experience. Every time a baby sticks her finger on a pin or laughs in response to an adult’s embellished gestures, a cascade of genetic activity is triggered in her brain that results in new, and perhaps even lifelong, synaptic connections. Continue reading