One of the most significant evolutionary changes underlying the highly developed cognitive abilities of humans is the greatly enlarged brain volume. In addition to being far greater than in most other species, the volume of the human brain exhibits extensive variation and distinct sexual dimorphism in the general population. However, little is known about the genetic mechanisms underlying normal variation as well as the observed sex difference in human brain volume. Here we show that interleukin-3 (IL3) is strongly associated with brain volume variation in four genetically divergent populations. We identified a sequence polymorphism (rs31480) in the IL3 promoter which alters the expression of IL3 by affecting the binding affinity of transcription factor SP1. Further analysis indicated that IL3 and its receptors are continuously expressed in the developing mouse brain, reaching highest levels at postnatal day 1-4. Furthermore, we found IL3 receptor alpha (IL3RA) was mainly expressed in neural progenitors and neurons, and IL3 could promote proliferation and survival of the neural progenitors. The expression level of IL3 thus played pivotal roles in the expansion and maintenance of the neural progenitor pool and the number of surviving neurons. Moreover, we found that IL3 activated both estrogen receptors, but estrogen didn't directly regulate the expression of IL3. Our results demonstrate that genetic variation in the IL3 promoter regulates human brain volume and reveals novel roles of IL3 in regulating brain development.
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