The secret of slow human brain growth

Researchers discover a “cellular hourglass” that sets the tempo of brain development.

Leuven, 26 January – It takes several years for the human brain to develop fully, whereas this happens much faster in other species. The slow maturation of the human brain is thought to be important for its function, but it was unknown what caused this. Now, a team of researchers led by Ryohei Iwata, Pierre Casimir, and Pierre Vanderhaeghen (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research and ULB) found that the mitochondria, the energy factory in the brain cells, are responsible for the rate at which the brain develops. This discovery sheds light on human evolution and may have important implications for brain function and diseases. Their work was published in Science.

Pierre Vanderhaeghen: “We discovered that mitochondria set the tempo of neuronal maturation. Neurons have an hourglass inside to measure time, and mitochondria provide that hourglass. This revelation is an important step to understand one of the greatest mysteries in biology: what makes the human brain so distinct from other species, and why is it so sensitive to some diseases? Our findings can also be used to speed up basic and pharmaceutical research into human neurological or psychiatric diseases, which up until now was greatly hindered by slow human neuronal development.”

Driven by mitochondria

The human brain takes a long time to develop its neurons compared to other species. It takes years to reach full maturity, instead of weeks in the mouse. This slow growth is also thought to be crucial for the enhanced functions of the human brain. Previous studies from the Vanderhaeghen Lab showed that this timing is controlled by cells themselves and not external factors, but it was unknown how.

Mitochondria are responsible for energy production in cells. Our brain lives off the energy that the mitochondria in the brain cells produce. Now, Vanderhaeghen and his lab showed that mitochondria also determine the development rate of the brain. This knowledge can have a significant impact on the study of neurological diseases.

The cellular hourglass

Mitochondria are the master regulators of the metabolism in every cell by converting nutrients like sugar into cellular energy. They were thought to be the same in every cell, but Ryohei Iwata and Pierre Casimir made the surprising observation that mitochondria in young human neurons behave differently from those of mouse neurons at the same age: the human mitochondria grow much more slowly, and their energy metabolism is much less active.

Mouse neurons (left) and a human neuron (right). Mitochondria displayed in green.
Mouse neurons (left) and a human neuron (right). Mitochondria displayed in green.

Could this be related to the slow speed of human neuron maturation? To test this, they pharmacologically and genetically manipulated the neurons to enhance mitochondrial function. They saw that this accelerated the pace of neuron development, so neurons became more mature months ahead. Conversely, decreasing mitochondrial function led to slower growth in the mouse neurons. This confirmed their suspicion that mitochondria set the tempo of neuronal maturation.

Ryohei Iwata, postdoctoral researcher and first author of the study: “We made this discovery because we developed a new genetic tool to measure time in developing neurons. We also invented a new method to obtain more mature neurons months ahead, which will be highly valuable for medical and pharmaceutical research.”

Implications for brain diseases

Indeed, when studying neuronal diseases in vitro, the slow development of neurons often hampers research. Mimicking the slow pace of maturation observed in vivo, growing human neurons in the lab takes several months to years to reach maturity. This makes the cells particularly difficult to study experimentally. Now, scientists will be able to accelerate neuronal maturation, allowing them to better study the brain’s function and models of neural diseases.

This work also has potentially important implications for some brain diseases. Some diseases strike mitochondria, and the affected patients often show early brain symptoms, which could be related to the discovery reported here. Conversely, some disorders that affect human brain development could be linked to mitochondria. The Vanderhaeghen team will follow up on these critical questions in the future.

Pierre Vanderhaeghen (left) and Ryohei Iwata (right)
Pierre Vanderhaeghen (left) and Ryohei Iwata (right)


Mitochondria Metabolism Sets the Species-Specific Tempo of Neuronal Development. Iwata, et al. Science, 2023. DOI 10.1126/science.abn4705.

India Jane Wise

India Jane Wise

Science Communications Expert, VIB

Joran Lauwers

Joran Lauwers

Science & Business Communications Expert, VIB


This work was funded by Grants from the European Research Council (NEUROTEMPO), the Belgian FWO and FRS/FNRS, the AXA Research Fund, the Generet Fund, the Belgian Queen Elizabeth Foundation, the Fondation ULB. Ryohei Iwata was a Fellow of the Belgian FRS/FNRS, and Pierre Casimir, an Aspirant of the FWO.

About the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research

Scientists at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease study how brain cells are organized and how they communicate with each other. These mechanisms reveal and provide insights into what goes wrong in brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and dystonia. This basic work should ultimately lead to new drugs for use against these currently incurable diseases.

About KU Leuven

KU Leuven is Europe’s most innovative university (Reuters) and ranks 45th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. As Belgium's largest university, KU Leuven welcomes 60,000 students from over 140 countries. Its 7,000 researchers are active in a comprehensive range of disciplines. KU Leuven is a founding member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and has a strong European and international orientation. University Hospitals Leuven, its network of research hospitals, provides high-quality healthcare and develops new therapeutic and diagnostic insights with an emphasis on translational research.

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