Only relatively recently has it become clear that mammalian genomes encode tens of thousands of long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). A striking 40% of these are expressed specifically in the brain, where they show precisely regulated temporal and spatial expression patterns. This begs the question, what is the functional role of these many lncRNA transcripts in the brain? Here we canvass a growing number of mechanistic studies that have elucidated central roles for lncRNAs in the regulation of nervous system development and function. We also survey studies indicating that neurological and psychiatric disorders may ensue when these mechanisms break down. Finally, we synthesize these insights with evidence from comparative genomics to argue that lncRNAs may have played important roles in brain evolution, by virtue of their abundant sequence innovation in mammals and plausible mechanistic connections to the adaptive processes that occurred recently in the primate and human lineages.
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