Connecting European Neuroscience

The Brain Conference on Cortex Evolution and Development: Q&A with the co-chairs

The application procedure is now open for the next Brain Conference, which takes place in Copenhagen on September 2017. Co-chairs Zoltán Molnár, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Oxford and developmental biologist Arnold Kriegstein from the University of California, San Francisco talk to FENS about what attendees can expect.

What is special about the general format of The Brain Conferences?

Zoltán and Arnold:  These are high-level meetings in key areas of contemporary neuroscience. They are unique because they encourage a very broad approach that can bring leading experts from different disciplines together who would normally not cross each other’s paths at the conferences they usually attend. The meetings promote interaction because they are relatively small and they have a healthy mixture of students and young postdoctoral fellows as well as established experts. The relaxed atmosphere is fostered by a stunning venue. Our meeting will be held in Moltkes Palæ, a historic building in the centre of old Copenhagen that was built for Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve in 1702. And thanks to very generous support from the Brain Prize foundation, we have been able to invite speakers from around the globe to foster a truly international meeting with an interdisciplinary perspective.

How have you used the format in your meeting, Cortex Evolution and Development?

Zoltán and Arnold:  We consider ourselves very privileged to be able to organize a meeting with such few constraints.  We have invited speakers with interesting stories to tell, representing a mixture of scientific generations from around the world, representing established leaders as well as students – along with emerging talents who are already making a huge impact on the field. We organized the meeting into sessions where delegates can be introduced to areas that they may not have explored, and have ensured that there will be time to interact and exchange views over the several days and nights of the meeting. We want to encourage discussion across fields – and not just during question periods following individual presentations, and we will be selecting session chairs who will be charged with initiating and provoking general discussions involving all participants.  Sometimes the most original and thought provoking ideas come from researchers who are not familiar with the given field. We hope to cultivate an ambiance where all participants will be comfortable enough to be proactively contribute to the discussion.

FENS: What do evolutionary biology and developmental biology have to learn from each other at this point in time?

Zoltán and Arnold: A lot. We have quite different approaches of course. Evolutionary biologists look at causality in selection, whereas developmental biologists search for proximate mechanisms.  Evolutionary biologists look at genes as sources of variation and as key elements creating diversity and change; whereas developmental biologists look at them as directors of function and they prefer universality and constancy. The history and timescales are also very different, evolutionary biologists study phylogeny in 101-109 years; developmental biologists study cell lineage in 10-1-10-7 years.  But development holds an important key for evolutionary biologists. Evolution includes the evolution of developmental mechanisms. Over the last two decades enormous progress has been made in understanding developmental mechanisms and developmental disorders. The tools of genetics and modern anatomical and imaging methods have enabled great strides in understanding brain development in selected models. More recently, the advent of human stem cell-derived organoids has broadened the study of developmental mechanisms to include the healthy and diseased human brain. Comparative developmental approaches can reveal different specializations that subserve similar functions in different brains, sharpening the contribution of specific mechanisms to brain organization and function, while developmental studies can reveal how brains achieve the particular features that distinguish them from other species. Combining both approaches can illuminate the evolutionary processes that made us human.

FENS: What are the next big questions in developmental biology research that you think, or hope, will be cracked in the near future?

Zoltán and Arnold:  Most cognitive conditions have developmental origins (schizophrenia 1:100; autism 1:68; dyslexia 1:10, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 1:30), but we are just at the very beginning of understanding how the complex interactions between an unfolding genetic program and the environment produce subtle alterations in neuronal cell numbers, proportions, differentiation and circuit assembly that will manifest as disease.  Building the human brain relies on complex cellular interactions, and the human brain has a very prolonged developmental period in comparison to our closest living relatives, which probably contributes to the huge cortical expansion of the human brain. On the other hand, the most recently evolved traits have specific vulnerabilities that we are just beginning to appreciate.  The methods of developmental biology research have become more refined, including single cell RNA sequencing, allowing the discovery of much more subtle cellular alterations in healthy development and disease. We are also beginning to appreciate both the power and the limitation of animal models. We can now study cell lineage, migration, and connectivity directly in human in normal and pathological conditions. We are beginning to understand why similar disruptions can cause different cognitive conditions, and why dysfunction in different pathways can lead to similar disorders. 

FENS: What are the next big questions in evolutionary biology that you think, or hope, will be cracked in the near future?

Some of the current questions have been around for centuries. What is the origin of the mammalian cerebral cortex? What are the similarities and differences in brain organization in different species? What makes us human?  With new methodologies and interdisciplinary approaches we have a real chance to answer some of these questions. The powerful tools of single cell sequencing and comparative connectomics, the computing power of mathematical modeling, and the recovery of ancient DNA are giving us momentum to approach these fundamental issues. There has not been a better or more exciting time to be in evolutionary biology than today. We hope our meeting will reflect this excitement and possibly impact the future directions of the field.



Zoltán Molnár

  Arnold Kriegstein
  University of Oxford
  University of California, San Francisco