Scientists Discover That the Genes for Learning and Memory Are 650 Million Years Old

Genetic DNA Close Illustration

Researchers have found that genes linked to complex behaviors like learning and aggression originated around 650 million years ago, potentially influencing the Cambrian Explosion. This discovery may provide insights into the origins of various complex behaviors in animals, including humans.


A team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Leicester has determined that genes responsible for learning, memory, aggression, and other complex behaviors emerged approximately 650 million years ago.

The research spearheaded by Dr. Roberto Feuda, of the Neurogenetic group within the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Leicester and the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), has recently been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Dr. Feuda said: “We’ve known for a long time that monoamines like serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline act as neuromodulators in the nervous system, playing a role in complex behavior and functions like learning and memory, as well as processes such as sleep and feeding.

Roberto Feuda

Dr. Roberto Feuda. Credit: University of Leicester

“However, less certain was the origin of the genes required for the production, detection, and degradation of these monoamines. Using the computational methods, we reconstructed the evolutionary history of these genes and showed that most of the genes involved in monoamine production, modulation, and reception originated in the bilaterian stem group.


“This finding has profound implications on the evolutionary origin of complex behaviors such as those modulated by monoamines we observe in humans and other animals.”

The authors suggest that this new way to modulate neuronal circuits might have played a role in the Cambrian Explosion – known as the Big Bang – which gave rise to the largest diversification of life for most major animal groups alive today by providing flexibility of the neural circuits to facilitate the interaction with the environment.

Dr. Feuda added: “This discovery will open new important research avenues that will clarify the origin of complex behaviors and if the same neurons modulate reward, addiction, aggression, feeding, and sleep.”

Reference: “The monoaminergic system is a bilaterian innovation” by Matthew Goulty, Gaelle Botton-Amiot, Ezio Rosato, Simon G. Sprecher and Roberto Feuda, 6 June 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39030-2