A specific protein in the nerve cells in our brains plays an important role in the development of human consciousness. This discovery was made by an international team of researchers from, among other, Erasmus MC. The finding helps scientists understand how we acquire higher cognitive skills such as logical thinking and reasoning. The researchers have published their findings today in the leading scientific journal Cell.
The discovery concerns the so-called fragile X protein (FMRP) which regulates the passing of signals between the neurons. The researchers have shown that the protein plays an important role in the production of an enzyme in the nerve cells during the development of the human embryo. This enzyme is called nitric oxide synthase and causes the release of a signal molecule. This process is important for the functioning of groups of nerve cells in the brains of unborn babies. These neurons are involved in consciousness later in life, i.e. the ability to reason and think logically but also in matters such as language, empathy and emotion. “Now that we have a better understanding of the role that the fragile X protein plays in this process it will help us learn more about how, for example, human consciousness and language development are acquired”, says Rob Willemsen of the Clinical Genetics department at Erasmus MC.
The discovery also gives insight into the evolutionary history of the acquisition of higher cognitive skills in humans. The specific role of this protein had probably already been generated during the period of the apes in the old world (approximately 40 million years ago) when the DNA of catarrhine monkeys changed. Catarrhine monkeys include macaques, baboons, apes and also humans.
People lacking the fragile X protein will suffer from the fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability. In addition to their intellectual disability, patients also display language and speech disorders and behavior disorders including hyperactivity and behavior similar to autism. The study is a collaborative effort between several universities, including Yale, New Jersey, California, Zagreb and Rotterdam.