The prefrontal cortex of the human brain is the nerve center of memory and cognitive functions. Photo: iStock

Chinese scientists say they might have unraveled the mechanism and developmental landscape of the human prefrontal cortex (PFC), decoding the functionality the lobe as the “CPU” of the human brain.

Scientists at Peking University, the Capital University of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biophysics conducted single-cell transcriptional profiling and identified cell types in the human PFC and their developmental features, according to Xinhua.

Their research was published online in the acclaimed journal Nature this month.

The PFC is one of the most vital regions of the brain, containing billions of cells and serving as the “central processing unit” of advanced intellectual activities such as memory and cognitive ability.

Disturbances or failures of PFC development may contribute to several cognitive deficits seen in patients with neurodevelopment disorders, such as intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

“We are one step closer to determining different cell types and cell composition to understand how the brain develops advanced cognitive function,” Professor Wang Xiaoqun of the CAS told Xinhua.

His team traced the molecular features of cells in the PFC during human brain development from as early as the eighth gestational week.

The research will provide a powerful tool for investigating the mechanisms behind neurological diseases related to abnormal structure or dysfunction of the PFC and for exploring potential therapies, they note in their research paper.

Wang said his overseas peers in the ongoing cell-census project such as “The BRAIN Initiative” in the United States mainly focused on the rodent brain atlas.

“We focus more on identifying and characterizing neuronal and non-neuronal cells in the human brain,” he said.

Experts on single-cell sequencing in stem-cell biology, neuroscience and computer science are also involved in the study, which is indeed an interdisciplinary endeavor.

Currently, Wang and his team are working on the non-neuronal cells in the human brain, which make up about half the total volume of the brain and spinal cord.

“We hope to figure out how those cells work together with neuronal cells and further explore the mystery of the human brain,” Wang said.