It’s not headline news that our brains are the seat of our thoughts and feelings. The brain is a body’s decision-maker, the pilot of its actions and the engineer that keeps all systems going. The brain suits the body’s actions to its surroundings, taking in sensory details and sending out appropriate and timely responses. We’ve long attributed the marvelous workings of the brain to the intricate structures formed by its highly specialized cells, neurons. These structures constitute the hardware of the brain. But new genomic research reveals that, at an even deeper level, emotions and behavior are also shaped by a second layer of organization in the brain, one that we only recently created the tools to see. This one relies on genes. We are beginning to appreciate how genes and neurons work together, like software and hardware, to make brain function possible. Learning to understand this two-layer system can help us understand how the environment affects behavior, and how to hack the system to improve mental health. It is time to fully recognize gene activity not as the background utility of the brain, but as an integral part of its operation.
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