Bird's song may be linked to speech disorders

UCLA scientists report parallels between human speech and the song of a bird, findings that may contain clues to human speech disorders.

The research by a team led by Stephanie White, UCLA assistant professor of physiological science, supports the theory that two genes shared by humans and songbirds, FoxP1 and FoxP2, may play a critical role in human speech, and speech disorders. The study is published March 31 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

"We examined the expression of FoxP1 and FoxP2 in embryonic human brains and found a striking correspondence between bird and human expression," said White, a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute. "The similar expression patterns suggest that songbirds can be studied to investigate neural mechanisms for vocal learning that may be parallel to those used by the human brain.

"Our findings make it more likely that FoxP2 plays a critical role for learning speech and vocalization in both humans and the songbird," she said. "Understanding how FoxP1 and FoxP2 function in the songbird may reveal significant insights into human vocal learning and speech disorders."

FoxP2 is in the brain of the zebra finch in regions that control the learning of song, said White, who said that additional unknown molecules are likely to interact with the gene. The UCLA study is the first to address whether FoxP2 is critical for learned vocalizations in other species.

Male zebra finches learn to sing a courtship song that their female counterparts do not learn.

White's team detected increased level of the closely related gene, FoxP1, in "Area X" of the male zebra finch's brain, a critical part of the bird's song circuitry, and in two other song regions of the brain.

"The finding that FoxP2 is expressed in the song circuit is exciting," White said. "We are getting a green light for studying the songbird to try to understand these genes."

FoxP2 may interact with FoxP1, and both genes ma

Contact: Stuart Wolpert
University of California - Los Angeles

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