Background (via Royal Society)
Ferrier prize lecture by Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, University of Oxford and University of Warwick
How do our genes program the complexity of our brains? Why is human culture so much richer than that of the Great Apes? And how has human cognitive achievement continued to accelerate, when our genetic makeup has changed very little over the past 100,000 years? The answers might lie in the adaptability and plasticity of the brain.
Development of connections in mammalian brains is specified not so much by precise instructions as by general rules, including adaptive mechanisms to fine-tune the connections between different levels in each pathway. And evolution has discovered genetic mechanisms that enable neurons to change the strength of their connections in response to the pattern of activity passing through them. Such plasticity gives us the capacity to remember and learn, and it helps to match our perceptions, thoughts and motor skills to the nature of the world around us. Brain plasticity, although genetically determined, enabled humans to escape from the informational limits in the blueprint of their genes and propelled them into a new phase of evolution.
Professor Colin Blakemore FRS is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford and also holds a Professorship at the University of Warwick. From 2003 to 2007 he was Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council.