The strengths of the genetic approach to understanding neural systems development and function: Ray Guillery's synthesis

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Abstract

The organization and function of sensory systems, especially the mammalian visual system, has been the focus of philosophers and scientists for centuries—from Descartes and Newton onward. Nevertheless, the utility of understanding development and its genetic foundations for deeper insight into neural function has been debated: Do you need to know how something is assembled—a car, for example—to understand how it works or how to use it—to turn on the ignition and drive? This review addresses this issue for sensory pathways. The pioneering work of the late Rainer W. (Ray) Guillery provides an unequivocal answer to this central question: Using genetics for mechanistic exploration of sensory system development yields essential knowledge of organization and function. Ray truly built the foundation for this now accepted tenet of modern neuroscience. His work on the development and reorganization of visual pathways in albino mammals—all with primary genetic mutations in genes for pigmentation—defined the genetic approach to neural systems development, function and plasticity. The work that followed his lead in a variety of sensory systems, including my own work in the developing olfactory system, proceeds directly from Ray's fundamental contributions.

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