Charles Darwin's theory of descent with modification by means of natural selection has stood the test of time, with new discoveries in genetics and the mathematical basis of natural selection providing ever growing evidence for the theory. This focus issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience — sponsored by the Wellcome Trust — celebrates the contribution of Darwin's ideas to our current understanding of the evolution of the nervous system. The articles in this special issue discuss the molecular, cellular and structural changes that have contributed to CNS evolution and their functional consequences.


Reviews

The origin and evolution of synapses

Tomás J. Ryan & Seth G. N. Grant

doi:10.1038/nrn2717

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 701-712 (2009)

Tracing the phylogeny of the molecular components of synapses, Ryan and Grant speculate on the core components of the last common ancestor of all synapses and posit that the diversification of upstream signalling components contributed to increased signalling complexity later in evolution.

Considering the evolution of regeneration in the central nervous system

Elly M. Tanaka & Patrizia Ferretti

doi:10.1038/nrn2707

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 713-723 (2009)

What allows some species, but not others, to regenerate their nervous system? In this Review, the authors compare CNS regeneration among vertebrates looking for clues that might explain how this ability might have emerged or been restricted through evolution.

Evolution of the neocortex: a perspective from developmental biology

Pasko Rakic

doi:10.1038/nrn2719

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 724-735 (2009)

Focusing on mammalian species, Pasko Rakic uses evo–devo studies to model how gene mutations may have affected neuron number and neuronal migration, which in turn may have contributed to the species-specific expansion and elaboration of the cerebral cortex.

Chordate roots of the vertebrate nervous system: expanding the molecular toolkit

Linda Z. Holland

doi:10.1038/nrn2703

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 736-746 (2009)

By comparing developmental gene expression and neuroanatomy of vertebrates and the basal chordate amphioxus, Linda Holland sheds light on the molecular changes that may have facilitated the evolution of the vertebrate brain.


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Perspectives

Sleep viewed as a state of adaptive inactivity

Jerome M. Siegel

doi:10.1038/nrn2697

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 747-753 (2009)

In this provocative Perspective, Jerry Siegel shows that many aspects of sleep differ greatly between species and conditions, such that a universal, vital function of sleep is unlikely. He argues that sleep benefits animals simply by increasing the efficiency of their activity.

MicroRNAs tell an evo–devo story

Kenneth S. Kosik

doi:10.1038/nrn2713

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 754-759 (2009)

MicroRNAs have crucial regulatory roles at the post-transcriptional level and are emerging as key players in the development of the nervous system in many species. In this Opinion article, Kosik discusses how these non-coding transcripts could drive evolutionary change.


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