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Successful Manipulation of Songs of Zebra Finches

Researchers at Freie Universität Prove Connection between Genetic Aberration and Speech Acquisition

№ 288/2007 from Dec 04, 2007

Scientists at Freie Universität headed by the biologist, Prof. Dr. Constance Scharff, have for the first time, through experiments with zebra finches, succeeded in proving that there is a link between genetic aberration and vocal learning. When the researchers reduced expression levels of the FOXP2 gene in the juvenile songbirds during a period of song learning, the birds’ singing became worse. These results are important because the learning patterns of songbirds are used as a model for the study of human speech. Songbirds and humans both learn to produce sounds through vocal imitation. The results of the study were published in the most recent issue of the journal PLoS Biology.

The researchers manipulated the areas of the brain in young finks that are important for learning songs, thereby reducing expression of the gene FOXP2. As a result, the finks were less well able to imitate the songs of the adult birds: their vocal imitations were incomplete and less perfect than usual. The results of this study may lead to conclusions regarding language acquisition in humans. The FOXP2 gene is apparently involved not only in the development of areas in the brain important for speech and singing, but it also steers the acquisition of these abilities by its involvement in controlling the mouth, tongue, and larynx. Patients with genetic mutations of FOX2, who suffer from the speech disorder called developmental verbal dyspraxia, speak in a simple manner – similar to the finks' vocalizations in the experiment. Their pronunciation is also more variable.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Constance Scharff
Institute of Biology at Freie Universität Berlin
Telephone: 030 / 838-53848
Email: scharff@zedat.fu-berlin.de

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