Genetics is increasingly making itself felt in the word of neuroscience. Labs all over the world are trying to understand the role played the the genome in the development of the brain, and impressive results are published each month highlighting how genes are expressed in the working brain, influencing learning and behaviour.
The holy grail of this neurogenomic research is, of course, the establishment of a bridge between the genome, the cell biology of neurons and synapses, the neurobiology of cognitive mechanisms, and behaviour – i.e., the four major aspects of the human mind. So far, not many behavioural traits – if any – can be explained fully in terms of the neurobiological mechanisms causing it, the molecular processes involved in said mechanisms, and the genomics underlying it all, but tintalizing results are emerging all the time that hint at what will come. The Hariri experiments Thomas and I have posted about here on the blog constitute one example. The tracing of how gene expression correlates with the learning of songs in song birds is another. [Check out these two sites.]
In lieu of all this, Cognition has decided to put together a special issue reviewing the progress made in genetics relating to the understanding of human cognition. The issue is still in press, but it is already possible to read some of the papers on the journal's webpage. As far as I can tell from the editorial introduction, written by Franck Ramus [available here], the special issue will contain contributions by Simon Fisher, Evan Balaban, Karin Stromswold, Bruce Pennington, James Blair, and Gary Marcus. Of these, Fisher's paper ["Tangled webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition"], Balaban's ["Cognitive developmental biology: History, process and fortune's wheel"], and Marcus' ["Cognitive architecture and descent with modification"] are on-line as I write this. I have glanced quickly at the available articles, and from what I can gather they look especially relevant to researchers working within the cognitive neurosciences who are interested in knowing more about how neurogenomics will impact their work.
Naturally, any attempts to root cognition in genetics will stir up controversies, and raise numerous hard questions. I will return to some of these issues in the coming weeks, as I read my way through the paper. Teaser: You are definitly going to hear more about modularity in the coming days!