NEW YORK (Reuters) – Although it’s far from the sort of brain transplant beloved by science fiction enthusiasts, scientists have taken one step in that direction: they have spliced a key human brain gene into mice.
In the first study designed to assess how partially ‘humanizing’ brains of a different species affects key cognitive functions, scientists reported on Monday that mice carrying a human gene associated with language learned new ways to find food in mazes faster than normal mice.
By isolating the effects of one gene, the work sheds light on its function and hints at the evolutionary changes that led to the unique capabilities of the human brain.
For the study, scientists used hundreds of mice genetically engineered to carry the human version of Foxp2, a gene linked to speech and language. In a 2009 study, mice carrying human Foxp2 developed more-complex neurons and more-efficient brain circuits.
Building on that, neuroscientists led by Christiane Schreiweis and Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained mice to find chocolate in a maze. The animals had two options: use landmarks like lab equipment and furniture visible from the maze (“at the T-intersection, turn toward the chair”) or by the feel of the floor (“smooth, turn right;” “nubby, turn left”).
Mice with the human gene learned the route as well by seven days as regular mice did by 11, scientists reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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