How did the human brain develop skills far beyond those of any other primate? Which genes enabled language, science, and art?
Those are some of the central questions facing the newly created Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution, a joint initiative of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group , a Seattle-based funder of scientific research, announced Wednesday that it is awarding $10 million over four years to launch the center.
The Allen Discovery Center will bring together researchers in neuronal molecular biology, human evolution, genetics, and genomics to figure out what exactly makes humans unique — which genes were involved, when they came into play, and how they were affected by experience and environment.
“It’s just amazing to try to contemplate how humans developed with all the unique capacities that we have,” said Dr. Christopher A. Walsh, chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the center’s leader.
The grant, he said, “forces interactions between people doing very good work in their own separate areas.”
For example, Walsh’s team at Children’s identified the genetic cause of a rare condition that results in babies born with tiny brains. The condition occurs when a certain gene is disabled. Could that gene have been responsible for the development of humans’ larger brains? “Maybe nature boosted its function as a way of making the brains of our human ancestors get bigger,” he said.
The Allen Discovery Center will make it easier for Walsh to answer that question by teaming up with center co-leader David E. Reich, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor, who studies the evolution of populations.
Michael Greenberg, a Harvard neurobiologist and also a center co-leader, said in a statement that the Allen grant would enable “three laboratories that have been working independently to come together and study the genetic, molecular, and evolutionary forces that have given rise to the spectacular capacities of the human brain.”