Over the past few years, human-specific genes have received increasing attention as potential major contributors responsible for the 3-fold difference in brain size between human and chimpanzee. Accordingly, mutations affecting these genes may lead to a reduction in human brain size and therefore, may cause or contribute to microcephaly. In this review, we will concentrate, within the brain, on the cerebral cortex, the seat of our higher cognitive abilities, and focus on the human-specific gene ARHGAP11B and on the gene family comprising the three human-specific genes NOTCH2NLA, -B, and -C. These genes are thought to have significantly contributed to the expansion of the cerebral cortex during human evolution. We will summarize the evolution of these genes, as well as their expression and functional role during human cortical development, and discuss their potential relevance for microcephaly. Furthermore, we will give an overview of other human-specific genes that are expressed during fetal human cortical development. We will discuss the potential involvement of these genes in microcephaly and how these genes could be studied functionally to identify a possible role in microcephaly.
Keywords: ARHGAP11B; NOTCH2NL; brain organoids; human-specific genes; microcephaly; neocortex development.