Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Birdsong and Human Speech

Speech and language seem to be uniquely human traits, which begs the question of how they arose. It turns out that a key regulatory gene controlling human speech, the FOXP2 (forkhead box transcription factor) gene, is also found in other animals, including songbirds. Knocking out these genes in humans (though accidental mutations) results in speech disorders associated with abnormalities in the basal ganglia, though exactly how they control the ability to speak is unknown. A team of German scientists used songbirds as a model for understanding the development of human speech. Instead of simply knocking out the gene, they used RNA interference to reduce FOXP2 levels in a specific area of the basal ganglia, known as Area X, in zebra finches, while they were in the stage of learning their song. This resulted in abnormal song patterns and provides a very persuasive example of how some genes can be directly linked to certain elements of behavior. However, note that the FOXP2 gene is a transcription factor gene that is part of the developmental toolkit, and so functions by regulating the expression of several other genes, so the actual pathway may be much more complicated that it first appears to be, so it would be misleading to simply call FOXP2 the 'speech gene'.

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