The explosion in the number of neurons that allowed the evolution of the human brain, and how touch develops before birth, when we are still in the womb, are two works carried out at the Institute of Neurosciences of Alicante awarded ex aequo with the award Alberto Sols, in the Best Scientific Work category. Behind these two works, published in the magazines Cell Y ScienceResearchers from the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), respectively, are Víctor Borrell and Guillermina López-Bendito. Both investigations had a great media coverage at the time of their publication.
The first to come to light was the one led by Víctor Borrell, in June 2018. Its title: “Evolution of Cortical Neurogenesis in Amniotes Controlled by Robo Signaling Levels”. It was published by the magazine Cell, and explained that it was not a gene that made the brain of the first amphibians begin to grow throughout evolution, increasing in complexity until reaching the human brain and the capacities that define us, but rather a change in the way of producing neurons which led to a brain as complex as ours.
The work led by Víctor Borrell explains that there was a change that allowed multiplying the final number of neurons, in which a protein called Robo was involved, and this also allowed new types of neurons to appear. Thus, it was possible to go from a relatively simple cerebral cortex, such as that of reptiles, made up of three layers of cells, to a more evolved six-layer one, typical of mammals.
The birth of touch
The other awarded work led by Guillermina López-Bendito was published in Science in May 2019, with the title of “Prenatal activity from thalamic neurons governs the emergence of functional cortical maps in mice”. It shows how the sense of touch arises in the brain before birth and not after, as had hitherto been advocated.
A key piece in the embryonic development of touch is the thalamus, a structure of the brain that acts as a simulator of stimuli when external ones have not yet arrived. This prenatal activity of the thalamus allows the creation of maps in the brain, in which each part of the body occupies a different place and extension depending on its use and sensitivity. The hands, for example, occupy in our species the largest extension in this cerebral map of the sense of touch; while in the case of rodents it would be their whiskers, where their touch resides.
The two winners are doctors in biology and carry out their research activities at the Institute of Neurosciences, a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the Miguel Hernández University (UMH). Dr. Guillermina López-Bendito directs the group on Development, Plasticity and Regeneration of the Thalamocortical Circuits, and Dr. Víctor Borrell leads the group on Neurogenesis and cortical expansion. Both are Scientific Researchers at the CSIC.
Alberto Sols Awards
The jury’s decision was made public last Friday, November 27, after the scientific commission formed by the rector of the University of Alicante, Manuel Palomar, met; Juana Gallar, Professor of Physiology at the Miguel Hernández University; Domingo Orozco, Vice-Rector for Research; César de Haro, researcher at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center; Francisco José Iborra, CSIC researcher at the National Biotechnology Center and the winners of the previous call: Antonio Alcamí and Jorge Alió y Sanz.
These biennial awards pay tribute to Dr. Alberto Sols, considered the pioneer of biochemical research in Spain. Sols created a school and formed numerous disciples, among them Margarita Salas. Born in the Alicante town of Sax, Alberto Sols was essential for the development of Biochemistry in Spain and also contributed to its internationalization. Sols received the Prince of Asturias Award in the first edition of this prestigious award. The awards that bear his name, instituted in 1988, recognize, in their two categories, the Best Research Work and the Best Scientific Work, respectively.
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