Grants fund brain research

The Yale School of Medicine has created a new research center to study the evolution of the human brain, thanks to grants from three federal institutes.

The Yale Center for Human Brain Development and Evolution, which was created in late September, is funded by over $26 million from the National Institutes of Health. The center’s researchers said they hope their studies will shed light on the causes of and potential cures for many diseases and disorders unique to humans such as schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disease.

The center will be part of the School of Medicine’s Kavli Institute for Neuroscience and will also receive financial support from the institute’s parent foundation, as well as from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a private organization that supports science research.

While the idea had floated around for several years, neurobiology professor Pasko Rakic said, University officials approved of the center’s creation only after its researchers had secured enough grant money.

Rakic and fellow neurobiology professor Nenad Sestan GRD ’99 were the main recipients of the center’s grants. Rakic, who chairs the School of Medicine’s Neurobiology Department, received two grants totaling $11 million. Sestan’s two grants from the NIH totaled $15.7 million, $9.9 million of which was awarded on Oct. 2 as part of the government’s $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Rakic’s research will focus on brain development in the early stages of life. He is studying why the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for human consciousness, is so large in humans compared to other species.

“The cerebral cortex is the crowning achievement of evolution,” Rakic said Monday night. “This is what makes it possible for us to think [and] to create; it makes us what we are.”

Sestan will study the brain’s development as it differentiates by function. He and his team intend to create a comprehensive map of how the human brain changes throughout life by studying the transcriptome — the set of RNA segments transcribed from the five or so percent of DNA expressed as proteins — of the brain.

“We have sequenced the human genome; we know how it looks,” Sestan said. “The mystery is when and where genes are expressed.”

By figuring out what which genes are expressed during normal brain development, Sestan said he hopes to increase understanding of neurological and special development disorders.

Previously, researchers could only look at one part of the transcriptome at a time. But improved RNA sequencing techniques will allow researchers to analyze the entire transcriptome at once, Sestan said. The sequencing will be done at West Campus, he added.

Kenneth Kwan, a postdoctoral lab associate on Sestan’s team, said the center’s current work represents only the first phase of a long-term project to study the human brain. Eventually, Kwan said, the work will become a valuable resource for scientists across the globe.

Lab associate Matthew Johnson GRD ’10, whose doctoral dissertation focused on developmental brain research, said Rakic and Sestan’s work will fill in critical gaps in the knowledge of the human brain.

“There’s a lot of work being done with mice and other animal models, but it’s important to remember that we always need to have data from humans to be able to interpret that work,” Johnson said.

Other researchers involved with the center include: Robert Bjornson GRD ’93 and Nicholas Carriero GRD ’87 of the Computer Science Department, Mark Gerstein of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department, Richard Lifton and James Noonan of the Genetics Department, Shrikant Mane of the Yale Sequencing Center and Matthew State GRD ’01 of the Yale Child Study Center.

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