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Keywords:

  • Adaptation;
  • brain evolution;
  • neurogenesis;
  • NIN;
  • primates;
  • radial unit hypothesis

A long-held dogma in comparative neurobiology has been that the number of neurons under a given area of cortical surface is constant. As such, the attention of those seeking to understand the genetic basis of brain evolution has focused on genes with functions in the lateral expansion of the developing cerebral cortex. However, new data suggest that cortical cytoarchitecture is not constant across primates, raising the possibility that changes in radial cortical development played a role in primate brain evolution. We present the first analysis of a gene with functions relevant to this dimension of brain evolution. We show that NIN, a gene necessary for maintaining asymmetric, neurogenic divisions of radial glial cells (RGCs), evolved adaptively during anthropoid evolution. We explored how this selection relates to neural phenotypes and find a significant association between selection on NIN and neonatal brain size in catarrhines. Our analyses suggest a relationship with prenatal neurogenesis and identify the human data point as an outlier, possibly explained by postnatal changes in development on the human lineage. A similar pattern is found in platyrrhines, but the highly encephalized genus Cebus departs from the general trend. We further show that the evolution of NIN may be associated with variation in neuron number not explained by increases in surface area, a result consistent with NIN's role in neurogenic divisions of RGCs. Our combined results suggest a role for NIN in the evolution of cortical development.