Study Identifies Gene Potentially Responsible for Human Language

A recent study in neuroscience suggests that a gene mutation which arose over half a million years ago could be the key to the unique ability that humans have to both produce and understand speech. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was conducted by Christiane Schreiweis, a former visiting graduate student at MIT and Ulrich Bornschein of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

What the researchers from MIT and the other European universities which took part in the study suggest is that the human version of a gene named FOXP2 facilitates transforming new experiences into routine procedures. When mice were engineered to express humanized FOXP2, they learned how to run a maze visibly faster than normal mice.

What the findings also show is that FOXP2 is potentially responsible for helping humans by influencing a key component used in learning languages. This component is the transformation of experiences (such as hearing the word ‘glass’ when being shown a glass of water) into a nearly automatic association of the word, with objects looking and functioning like glasses.  According to Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, member of MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study,

This really is an important brick in the wall saying that the form of the gene that allowed us to speak may have something to do with a special kind of learning, which takes us from having to make conscious associations in order to act to a nearly automatic-pilot way of acting based on the cues around us,’ the researcher declared.

It is known that all animal species communicate with each other, but only humans have the singular ability of generating and comprehending a proper language. FOXP2 is one of the numerous genes which scientists think might have contributed to the development of human linguistic skills. The FOXP2 gene was first identified in a group of family members (known as the KE family) who experienced severe difficulties in both speaking and understanding speech – they were found to carry a mutated version of this gene.

It was in 2009 when Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, engineered mice to express the human form of FOXP2, along with his team of researchers. The FOXP2 gene encodes a protein which is different from the mouse version by only two amino acids. The team found that the mice’s slender extensions in the striatum which neurons use to communicate with each other, called dendrites, were actually longer. (The striatum is a part of the brain which is responsible for habit formation). The mice were found to be better than humans at forming new synapses as well.

FOXP2 produces a protein that functions like a transcription factor, which means that it has the possibility to turn other genes on and off. The present study found that this gene appears to turn on genes involved in the regulation of synaptic connections in between neurons. Another finding of the research is that the dopamine activity in a part of the striatum involved in forming procedures is enhanced by the gene. Consequently, the neurons of stiatal regions could be turned off for longer periods in response to prolonged activation, known as long-term depression, which is allocated to learning new tasks and memory formation.

Svante Pääbo is an author of the new PNAS paper as well, while Enard and Graybiel are responsible for the striatum part of the study and the analysis of behavioral effects of replacing FOXP2. As mentioned earlier, the mice with humanized FOXP2 were better at learning to run a T-shaped maze, where mice have to make the decision to turn left or right at a T-shaped junction, based on the texture of the maze floor, in order to earn a food reward.

Collectively, the changes help with tuning the brain distinctly in order to adapt it to speech and language acquisition, according to the researchers. What they are investigating now is whether FOXP2 can interact with other genes to produce its effects on learning and language in other areas. According to Genevieve Konopka, assistand professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas.

‘The study provides new ways to think about the evolution of FOXP2 function in the brain. It suggests that human FOXP2 facilitates learning that has been conducive for the emergence of speech and language in humans. The observed differences in dopamine levels and long-term depression in a region-specific manner are also striking and begin to provide mechanistic details of how the molecular evolution of one gene might lead to alterations in behavior.

Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, The National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the Fondation pour la Recherche Medicale and the Max Planck Society are the major organizations to have funded this research.




Dolphins Exhibit Unending Compassion


Morality in animals is surprisingly common. Animals of all shapes and sizes have been documented exhibiting moral decision making and selflessness, even when faced with the prospect of pain or even death. As each day passes, studies continue to be released that reveal the profound intelligence and intuition of animals, and the fact that a multitude of species are just as conscious as human beings. While some species of animals are seen mourning their dead or protecting their young, others are seen desperately trying to save the life of other members of their species.  Once such animal that exhibits this behavior is the dolphin.

There are dozens of documented cases of dolphins rescuing humans, but for the first time researchers have witnessed an entire group of dolphins attempting to save another dying dolphin. The observation documents a very unusual case of care giving behavior between bottleneck dolphins. Korean scientists saw the attempted rescue take place off the coast of Ulsan, South Korea and were amazed by what they witnessed.

While researchers were documenting a group of more than 500 dolphins they noticed a separate, smaller group of about 12 dolphins swimming very slowly and acting abnormally on the surface of the water.  They realized that the group was attempting to save the life of one of their companions. The injured dolphin seemed to have paralyzed fins and red marks on its abdomen.  Individual dolphins kept the injured dolphin afloat by pushing its body upwards while a group of 10 or so dolphins formed a living raft as support.

Five dolphins at a time lined up horizontally into a raft-like formation, maintaining it while the stricken dolphin moved on top and rode on their backs. One of the dolphins in the raft even flipped over its body to better support the ailing dolphin above, while another used its beak to try to keep the dying dolphin’s head up. A few minutes later the stricken dolphin appeared to die, its body hanging vertically in the water, with its head above the surface. It wasn’t breathing.

Even after the injured dolphin died its companions continued to blow bubbles into it as if attempting resuscitation. Other members of the group rubbed and touched the dead dolphin’s body in seeming distress.

It is well known that dolphins are an incredibly intelligent and self-aware species.  Not only do they fully recognize themselves and make faces in the mirror, they have also been observed asking for help from human divers while injured. Dolphins have also been seen regularly using sponges as tools while foraging, which is believed to have originated from a single spontaneous innovation (their version of the wheel) and has spread to subsequent generations for the last 100 years or more.  They are additionally a very community driven species, forming gangs, tribes, and alliances that guard females against other tribes.  The varying tribes have frequently been seen persuading other tribes to end old alliances and form new ones.  These groups form the social foundation of dolphin society.

One of the most incredible aspects of dolphin intelligence is that despite humans not understanding their complex language, dolphins have an unparalleled comprehension of human language, even our syntax. They are natural chatters, engaging in communication with several different species other than humans.

Dolphins are incredibly self aware beings that deserve greater recognition and compassion- they certainly don’t mind sharing their compassion with us.




Wondergressive: Morality in Animals

Wondergressive: The Profound Intelligence and Intuition of Elephants

Wondergressive: Animals are Just as Conscious as Us

Wondergressive: Birds Mourn Their Dead

BBC Nature: Dolphins Try to Save Dying Companion

Marine Mammal Science: An Unusual Case of Care Giving Behavior

Understand Dolphin: Brain and Intelligence 

Youtube: Dolphins Looking into Mirrors

Huffington Post: Divers Rescue Dolphin After it Asks for Help

Dolphin Gangs

io9: Biologists and Dolphins Have Created the First Interspecies Language 

Science Direct: SETI Meets a Social Intelligence

Save The Whales: Cases of Dolphins Rescuing Humans