Medical Research

The Rockefeller University

Erich Jarvis, Shiaoching Gong, Michael Long, Ofer Tchernichovski
New York City, NY
June 2018

Spoken language is critically dependent on the ability to imitate sounds heard, a complex trait known as vocal learning.  Despite its independent evolution in only a handful of distantly related avian and mammalian lineages, vocal learning between these lineages shows remarkable convergence in behavioral mechanisms, neurocircuitry, and associated brain gene expression specializations.  These specializations include a finite set of over 50 genes that Rockefeller University researchers recently identified as showing convergent, differential expression within vocal circuits in the brains of vocal-learning songbirds and humans.  The investigators posit that evolutionary changes in the regulation of these genes are responsible for the emergence of vocal learning and other brain circuits for related complex traits.  They will test this hypothesis by developing new molecular tools to modify a rudimentary vocal brain circuit in mice.  The researchers will engineer the human versions of these genes into mouse vocal circuits and then determine whether these animals exhibit enhanced vocal-learning associated traits as measured by circuit connectivity, physiology, and vocal behavior.  Such studies may generate genetically tractable mouse models with greater vocal learning capacity for studying and repairing human communication disorders, as well as tools for genetically engineering circuits for other complex traits.

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