|Male Zebra Finch singing|
A study, recently conducted at University of Southern California, by Biology Professor Stephanie White, discovered an important relationship between song birds and human speech. All of the roughly 4,500 species of song birds have a gene called FoxP2. When the birds begin to sing, FoxP2 lowers in a region of the brain, called Area X, which is responsible for vocal control. When FoxP2 decreases, thousands of other genes get altered.
This study has found that FoxP2 plays an important role in the speech of humans, as well. Professor White believes this gene holds the molecular basis for vocal learning. FoxP2 produces a long gene and a shorter gene; those with a mutation in the longer gene have speech problems. The study involves inserting a modified version of FoxP2 into male zebra finches, which are song birds, to lessen the decline in the Area X, of the brain. Although the levels of FoxP2 remained high, it altered their ability to learn. White describes this as, “the molecular version of practice makes perfect.” Although it would take the songbirds time to learn their song, there would not be a decline in FoxP2, which means other genes can function normally and Area X is not disturbed.
White’s research could possibly lead to new treatments for language impairments, among humans. There have not been many developed, due to the lack of understand in how our vocals work. Mutated versions of FoxP2 could treat children with autism and those with the mutated long gene. Who ever knew that songbirds could be used to help people communicate?