Marit Willemijn Vermunt from the Creyghton group defended her thesis about the role of epigenetics in the evolution of the human brain.
Epigenetics is the field that studies the ‘extra layer of information’ covering the strands of DNA in each cell, which influences the expression of genes. Vermunt looked at epigenetic differences between the human brain and the primate brain. Especially in the brain, the epigenetic layer is important to give neurons their plasticity to respond quickly to the ever changing environment. She found that specific epigenetic elements, such as cis-regulatory elements (enhancers and promotors), have a clear role in the functional specialisation of parts of the brain, in the evolution of the brain and in neurodegenerative processes. Her study also reveals the specific human epigenetic elements, which is important because a lot of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinsons disease) are typical for mankind. It might be possible that our advanced neurocognitie system that developed during evolution (from our primate ancestors) has a price to pay in the ubiquity of brain diseases.