Debra Lynn Silver


Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

How is the brain assembled and sculpted during embryonic development?  Addressing this question has enormous implications for understanding neurodevelopmental disorders affecting brain size and function. In evolutionary terms, our newest brain structure is the cerebral cortex, which drives higher cognitive capacities. The overall mission of my research lab is to elucidate genetic and cellular mechanisms controlling cortical development and contributing to neurodevelopmental pathologies and brain evolution. We study neural progenitors, essential cells which generate neurons and are the root of brain development. We are guided by the premise that the same mechanisms at play during normal development were co-opted during evolution and when dysregulated, can cause neurodevelopmental disease.

My research program employs a multifaceted strategy to bridge developmental neurobiology, RNA biology, and evolution. 1) We investigate how cell fates are specified, by studying how progenitor divisions influence development and disease.  2) We study diverse layers of post-transcriptional regulation in neural progenitors. We investigate RNA binding proteins implicated in development and neurological disease. Using live imaging, we also investigate how sub-cellular control of mRNA localization and translation influences neural progenitors. 3) A parallel research focus is to understand how human-specific genetic changes influence species-specific brain development. Our goal is to integrate our efforts across these three major lines of research to understand the intricacies controlling brain development.

Appointments and Affiliations

  • Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
  • Professor in Cell Biology
  • Professor of Neurobiology
  • Member of the Duke Cancer Institute
  • Affiliate of the Duke Regeneration Center
  • Associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society

Contact Information

  • Email Address:
  • Websites:


  • National Institutes of Health, 2010
  • Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University, 2003
  • B.S. Tufts University, 1993

Courses Taught

  • CMB 710A: Cell & Molecular Biology Module I
  • MGM 593: Research Independent Study
  • NEUROSCI 493: Research Independent Study 1
  • NEUROSCI 494: Research Independent Study 2
  • UPGEN 778B: University Program in Genetics and Genomics Biological Solutions Module Il
  • UPGEN 778F: University Program in Genetics and Genomics Biological Solutions Module VI

In the News

Representative Publications

  • Pilaz, L-J; McMahon, JJ; Miller, EE; Lennox, AL; Suzuki, A; Salmon, E; Silver, DL, Prolonged Mitosis of Neural Progenitors Alters Cell Fate in the Developing Brain., Neuron, vol 89 no. 1 (2016), pp. 83-99 [10.1016/j.neuron.2015.12.007] [abs].
  • Mao, H; Pilaz, L-J; McMahon, JJ; Golzio, C; Wu, D; Shi, L; Katsanis, N; Silver, DL, Rbm8a haploinsufficiency disrupts embryonic cortical development resulting in microcephaly., Journal of Neuroscience, vol 35 no. 18 (2015), pp. 7003-7018 [10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0018-15.2015] [abs].
  • Boyd, JL; Skove, SL; Rouanet, JP; Pilaz, L-J; Bepler, T; Gordân, R; Wray, GA; Silver, DL, Human-chimpanzee differences in a FZD8 enhancer alter cell-cycle dynamics in the developing neocortex., Curr Biol, vol 25 no. 6 (2015), pp. 772-779 [10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.041] [abs].