Genetic Components of Vocal Learning


Address for correspondence: Constance Scharff, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Ihnestrasse 73, 14195 Berlin, Germany. Voice: 49-30-8413-1214; fax 49-30-8413-1383.; 〈〉


Abstract: Vocal learning is a rare trait. Humans depend on vocal learning to acquire spoken language, but most species that communicate acoustically have an innate repertoire of sounds that they use for information exchange. Among the few non-human species that also rely on vocal learning, songbirds have provided by far the most information for understanding this process. This article concentrates on the genetic components of vocal learning in humans and birds. We summarize the existing evidence for a genetic predisposition towards acquiring the species-specific human and avian vocal repertoires. We describe the approaches used for finding genes involved in shaping the neural circuitry required for vocal learning or in mediating the learning process itself. Special attention is given to a particular gene, FOXP2, which has been implicated in a human speech and language disorder. We have studied FoxP2 in avian vocal learners and non-learners and review evidence that links both the molecule and its close homologue FoxP1 to the development of brain regions implicated in vocal learning and to their function. FoxP2 has a characteristic expression pattern in a brain structure uniquely associated with learned vocal communication, Area X in songbirds, or its analogue in parrots and hummingbirds. In both avian song learners and non-learners FoxP2 expression predominates in sensory and sensory-motor circuits. These latter regions also express FoxP2 in mammals and reptiles. We conclude that FoxP2 is important for the building and function of brain pathways including, but not limited to, those essential for learned vocal communication.