Retrotransposons, a large and diverse class of transposable elements that are still active in humans, represent a remarkable force of genomic innovation underlying mammalian evolution. Among the features distinguishing mammals from all other vertebrates, the presence of a neocor-tex with a peculiar neuronal organization, composition and connectivity is perhaps the one that, by affecting the cognitive abilities of mammals, contributed mostly to their evolutionary success. Among mammals, hominids and especially humans display an extraordinarily expanded cortical volume, an enrichment of the repertoire of neural cell types and more elaborate patterns of neuronal connectivity. Retrotransposon-derived sequences have recently been implicated in multiple layers of gene regulation in the brain, from transcriptional and post-transcriptional control to both local and large-scale three-dimensional chromatin organization. Accordingly, an increasing variety of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions are being recognized to be associated with retrotransposon dysregulation. We review here a large body of recent studies lending support to the idea that retrotransposon-dependent evolutionary novelties were crucial for the emergence of mammalian, primate and human peculiarities of brain morphology and function.
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