Anatomy, Development, and Evolution of the Brain

Coordinators: Kenneth S. Kosik, Alexei Koulakov, Greg Lemke, Sara A. Solla, Samuel S.-h. Wang

Note: The starting date of this program has changed from the originally announced date.

The topical focus will be roughly broken down into three two-week sessions:
March 17 - March 28: Development of the brain and body

March 31 - April 11: Optimization and constraints on anatomical form and circuit reconstruction methods

April 14 - April 25: Comparative evolution of brain structures

The focus of this program is on the relationship between form and function in the context of brain evolution and development. The goal is to identify and investigate principles and mechanisms guiding the emergence of structures that allow the brain to implement its vast array of functional requirements. Recent developments in molecular biology provide strong and cumulative evidence of the unity of neurobiology at the molecular level across different species. However, in spite of common building blocks at the molecular level, the emerging neural circuitry and structure exhibit a surprisingly variety of solutions to the information-processing problems that the brain must solve; this macroscopic variety presents a serious challenge to our scientific understanding of how the brain works. We propose to address these questions through a comparative analysis of the development and evolution of brain structure. Neuronal differentiation, wiring anatomy, and the establishment of maps are related processes that link up with molecular mechanisms on the one hand and with brain function on the other. Evolution and development operate seamlessly across the neurobiological hierarchy, and provide a natural scenario for the integration of bottom-up and top-down approaches to the study of the brain.

The program is designed to integrate rapidly developing conceptual and experimental tools relevant to the discussion of core questions: (a) the evolution of brain structures, with a focus on comparative neuroanatomy and the genetic basis of brain evolution; (b) optimization and constraints on anatomical form, dealing with minimization principles for connection lengths, the scaling of dendrites, axons, synapses and cell size, and principles of network design; and (c) molecular mechanisms of brain development, centered on dendritic and axonal branching, the generation of neuronal diversity, synaptogenesis, and reciprocal signaling between neural cells. Specific topics will range from efforts at identifying evolutionary principles to models of neural development, genetic networks, the role of chemical gradients and the formation of topographic maps. An important component will be the discussion of methods for anatomical circuit reconstruction based on scanning sectioning electron microscopy, and of methods for in situ recovery of neuron structure.