skip to main content

PNAS Perspective Paper Promotes Brain Gene Regulatory Networks' Impact on Behavior

9/13/2020 12:37:46 PM Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

For years, scientists have used neural networks as the standard model for describing brain activity associated with human and animal behavior. These networks take into account the way neurons transmit electrochemical signals to control sensory, integrative, and motor function.

Saurabh Sinha
Saurabh Sinha

More recently, researchers have discovered a new level of molecular activity in the brain that contributes to animal and human behavior. According to Illinois CS professor Saurabh Sinha, gene regulatory networks (GRNs) also play a crucial role in behavior, and measuring their activity in the brain will someday help unravel human psychiatric diseases and conditions.

Sinha and a multi-institutional team of researchers published this viewpoint in the perspective article, “Behavior-related gene regulatory networks: A new level of organization in the brain,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in July 2020.

“Various groups around the world have been touching upon this topic in their own ways—looking at different organisms or collecting data of different types,” said Sinha, who creates computational methods to better understand GRNs. “Clearly, all their work points to the common concept that gene regulatory networks are crucial in the context of behavior. Our PNAS article articulates and connects these disparate works that have provided support for this concept.”

In a nutshell, Sinha and his colleagues argue that integrating neural networks and GRNs holds great potential for a better understanding of how neurons and the genes expressed within them together regulate an organism’s behavior.

A depiction of neuronal network and gene regulatory network interactions in the brain.
A depiction of neuronal network and gene regulatory network interactions in the brain.

Gene regulation refers to the process by which genes are expressed, or more simply, turned on or off. GRNs control the expression level of thousands of behavior-related genes in the brain.

In their perspective paper, they examined emerging insights into the relationship between neural networks and GRNs and discussed how they interact over space and time.

One of those colleagues is Swanlund Chair and entomology professor Gene Robinson, who was part of a groundbreaking study nearly 10 years ago that discovered how behaviors like foraging and aggression in honey bees are influenced by discrete GRNs in the brain.

Sinha and Robinson organized a workshop with more than two dozen leaders in the GRN brain research field, which was the impetus for the PNAS paper.

Read more: “Integration of gene regulatory networks in understanding animal behavior,” Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology