According to studies conducted at the University of Queensland, certain aspects of early human brain development can be seen mirrored in the brains of marsupials.
Dr. Rodrigo Suárez, who is the study’s primary author and works at the Queensland Brain Institute and the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland, believes that the discovery might lead to a better understanding of brain patterns that are associated to neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Marsupials are mammals that are born at extremely early stages – the equivalent to mid-gestation in human terms,” Dr. Suárez explained.
The majority of a marsupial’s brain development takes place after birth, when the animal is still in its mother’s pouch.
“Because of this, we’ve been able to study patterns of neural activity in the Australian native fat-tailed dunnart, and we found that they’re similar to those in the human brain while it’s still in utero.”
Learning From Marsupials About Brain Growth
The researchers were able to capture the electrical activity of neurons in marsupial joeys by using light indicators in their investigation.
“We followed the onset and maturation of complex activity patterns, using advanced microscopy to read how the joey’s developing brain cells first communicate,” Dr. Suárez stated. “This allowed us to read how the joey’s developing brain cells first communicated with one another.”
“From the very beginning, there were clear patterns that indicated not only that neural activity starts before sensory input, but also that the one-of-a-kind electrical characteristics that are present in newborn cells could be essential for the normal creation of brain connections.
Similarly, even minute deviations from these patterns might result in neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism spectrum disorder.
According to Dr. Suárez, it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that human newborns respond to stimulus far before birth.
“But exactly when, where, and how electrical activity begins in the developing brain has remained largely unknown,” he added. “This is because there has been a lack of research into this topic.”
“This is primarily due to the fact that only mammals have evolved a cerebral cortex, which is the wrinkly surface of our brains that controls sensory motor and cognitive tasks. Additionally, the majority of experimental models are unable to survive at such an early stage outside of the uterus.”
The study of marsupials, according to Dr. Suárez, might help researchers travel further back in the history of brain evolution.
“These findings highlight early processes of brain development that emerged millions of years ago and are ongoing with little change, likely influencing the evolution and diversification of the cerebral cortex,” according to the authors of the study.