Wired has an excellent article on the Allen Institute for Brain Science’s ambitious mission to map where each gene is expressed in the brain.
We tend to think of genes in terms of their ability to pass on characteristics to new generations, but the moment the egg and the sperm combine, genes start coding for proteins which the body uses to do its work.
Of course, this includes the brain, so knowing what type of genes produce proteins in which areas of the brain gives us a big clue to some of the brain’s functions.
The article is, perhaps, a little overly hopeful about the significance of a having a gene map for understanding complex mind functions or disorders (autism is mentioned as an example) – suggesting that some research hits a dead end without it.
Perhaps something useful to mention is that one of the key pieces in the puzzle of gene expression in the brain is not where genes are expressed but under what conditions they are expressed.
While your DNA has the ability to express every protein it has genes for, the cell regulates this process so it reacts to current conditions dynamically.
In other words, the genes are more of a reference book, and the cell’s other regulation processes decide how and when to use this information.
As far as we know, all learning in the brain happens through proteins, meaning that experience, learning, thought, motivation – or any other ‘psychological level’ process we can think of, acts through the many, complex and not fully understood regulation processes.
So understanding the reference book is an essential but insufficient part of the picture. The real deal is in understanding how the brain’s cellular workers use the information to mediate between genes and the processes we understand at the psychological, behavioural or experiential level.
This is part of the new science of epigenetics, and there are high hopes that this will be a big part of future neurobiology.
This doesn’t imply that we don’t need to understand the role of experience and the environment in deference to purely reductionist neurobiological models. In fact, these new developments have stressed the importance of integrating these bigger concepts.
And this is largely because we now have the beginnings of a science that could help us make links between these different levels of explanation.
Nevertheless, the Allen Brain Atlas is an important and exciting part of this new science and the Wired article is a great introduction to the project.