Home Society & Culture Researchers at Hebrew University and University of Kentucky Receive $1 Million Grant to Study Human Brain Complexity

Researchers at Hebrew University and University of Kentucky Receive $1 Million Grant to Study Human Brain Complexity

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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Kentucky researchers are exploring whether a new type of protein substantially increases the molecular complexity in the brain and improves its function.

This may have implications for the study of neurological diseases such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, and autism.

The researchers recently received a $1 million joint grant from the American National Science Foundation and the US–Israel Binational Science Foundation to study new aspects of RNA biology.

The team of researchers, led by Professor Ruth Sperling of the Hebrew University Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, together with Professor Stephen Stamm from the School of Medicine in Lexington,Kentucky, hypothesise that a new type of primate-specific proteins, translated from molecules of circular RNA, improves the brain’s function in relation to other organisms with a similar number of genes.

RNA is the mediator in turning instructions encoded in DNA into cellular proteins. As part of the process, the RNA is heavily modified: some pieces are cut out and the remaining parts are put back together, to assemble a new line of RNA – which fundamentally changes their composition. Sometimes, these parts form in circles, creating circular RNA.

Circular RNAs are mostly found in the brain and their formation is promoted by genomic elements specific to humans and other primates, called Alu-elements. The human genome consists of about 11% Alu-elements and their expansion in primates correlates with brain complexity.

“For the first time, the team of researchers will focus on new biological aspects of the circular RNA molecules, with the aim of revealing why humans have a stronger and more complex brain than other organisms with a similar number of genes,” Stamm says.

Professor Sperling, a world-renowned expert in RNA processing, is seeking to understand how circular RNA is created by the splicing machinery in cells, to analyse when this occurs and how it is regulated in the brain.

According to Sperling: “If we do find that we have new proteins, this opens up a completely new research field with essential functions for the human brain.” Such a discovery may have wide implications, for example, on the detection of genetic materials correlated with schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism, or neurological disease.”

The hypothesis is that the new proteins, translated from these specific circular RNAs, substantially increase molecular complexity, which improves brain functions. “Do circular RNAs code for proteins? Do these proteins function? Can they be found in the brain? This is what we are analysing. It has never been looked at,” Stamm says.

As part of the three-year project, there will be annual two-week RNA biology courses held in the summer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem led by Stamm and Sperling. Students from both universities will have theoretical lectures and do hands-on experiments during the course.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2221921, and US–Israel Binational Science Foundation under Award Number 2022602.

About the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Israel’s leading academic and research institution. Serving some 24,000 students from 80 countries, it produces a third of Israel’s civilian research and is ranked 12th worldwide in biotechnology patent filings and commercial development.

Faculty and alumni of the Hebrew University have won eight Nobel Prizes and a Fields Medal. 

About American Friends of the Hebrew University

American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU) is a national, not-for-profit organisation based in the US. AFHU is headquartered in New York and has seven regional offices working in close partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

AFHU provides supporters, Hebrew University alumni, and the public with stimulating programs and events, and organizes missions to Israel.

The organisation’s activities support scholarly and scientific achievement at HU, create scholarships, fund new facilities, and assist the university’s efforts to recruit outstanding new faculty.

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