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ALUminating The Mechanisms Underlying Primate Cortex Evolution

      Abstract

      The higher-order cognitive functions observed in primates correlate with the evolutionary enhancement of cortical volume and folding, which in turn are driven by the primate-specific expansion of cellular diversity in the developing cortex. Underlying these changes is the diversification of molecular features including the creation of human and/or primate-specific genes, the activation of specific molecular pathways, and the interplay of diverse layers of gene regulation. We review and discuss evidence for connections between Alu elements and primate brain evolution, the evolutionary milestones of which are known to coincide along primate lineages. Alu are repetitive elements that contribute extensively to the acquisition of novel genes and the expansion of diverse gene regulatory layers, including enhancers, alternative splicing, RNA editing, and microRNA pathways. By reviewing the impact of Alus on molecular features linked to cortical expansions, gyrification or implicated in cognitive deficits, we suggest that future research focusing on the role Alu-derived molecular events in the context of brain development may greatly advance our understanding of higher order cognitive functions and neurological disorders.

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