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.




New Cancer Treatment Shows Promising Results in Leukemia Patients

New cancer treatment trials are shedding light on the ultimate solution for leukemia patients. Leukemia is a type of cancer found in blood cells which originates in the bone marrow that is inside every bone. When mainstream cancer treatments and institutions failed leukemia patents, a group of scientists from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania decided to take those patients in as a last resort.  Using an altered form of the HIV virus, patients were given modified T-cells that directly annihilate cancer cells.

Here is a summary of how this particular cancer treatment works:

Patients’ cells are removed and then undergo the modification process. The T-cells found in the blood sample are reprogrammed to target tumor cells. This reprogramming works through gene modification using an altered form of the HIV virus. It is not deadly, and the only part used is the part that encodes a new protein, called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), into the T-cells’ surface. This protein then binds to another protein called CD19.

Related Read: Cannabis Cures Cancer and Everything Else

CD19 is a protein that is expressed in all tumor cells, as well as B cells, which are part of the immune system. The patients get a dose of B cells from the docs, so no worry there. The rest of the cells in the body do not have this CD19 protein shown on the surface, so they are ignored. The newly engineered T-cells are infused back into the patient, and start to kill off the tumors. Not to mention, the T-cells also multiply and stay present in the system.

Nine of twelve leukemia patients who received infusions of their own T cells after the cells had been genetically engineered to attack the patients’ tumors responded to the therapy. –

This seems really promising. On an even more promising note, there are more scientists tinkering with similar methods to specifically have T-cells target the CD19 protein found on tumor cells. Let us pray that one day this cancer treatment works not only on leukemia, but also on lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, and all other forms of cancer as well.

Related Read: Can Genetically Modified Corn Form Tumors in the Body?




DNA Ancestry Checking Is as Cheap as $99


DNA ancestry checking is something that is relatively new. It used to cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to check your DNA. In recent years it has gotten a lot cheaper. In fact it became so cheap that a private company that checks your DNA ancestry called 23andMe has made it commercially available to people who can afford it. Prices were as low as around $800 to get your DNA checked. Later it went down to $400, then around $300.

Now, you can check your DNA ancestry for $99 dollars. What you discover in return is your ancestral lineages, what health issues you are prone to have a higher risk for, as well as what drugs and/or medications are right for you.

The process is really easy. You purchase the saliva kit. You receive it in the mail and register it online. You give your saliva sample and send the kit back. You should see results within 6-8 weeks. You can see your personal overview on their website.

What stood out the most is the very long list of 247 possible health risks such as diabetes, cancer, Crohn’s disease, and high/low blood pressure, to name the very least. This is by far more accurate than asking a fortune teller to predict your future health problems, or even doctors! If you find out that you have a low risk for diabetes, then great, you have one less thing to worry about. On the flip side, if you have a high risk of developing diabetes, then you would be prepared early and be able to take precautionary measures, whether that is going to a doctor early or making dietary changes accordingly.

So now that you know about checking your DNA ancestry for your roots and health risks, there is one more factor to take into consideration before deciding to venture out into buying one of these kits. What if you found out that you had a high risk for a few types or cancers or some other terminal disease? Or what if you found out how most likely you would die. Is it worth it to carry that in the back of your head? Some people are reluctant to try DNA ancestry testing because it may not be worth the stress and melancholy. There is a chance that the extra stress itself may shorten your life. When choosing to get your DNA checked, please keep these points in mind.



Epigenetics and Altering Your DNA

The world used to believe that we were all bound by the fate of our genetics.  Science is now telling us that is far from the truth.  Epigenetics, a fairly new field of study in genetics, has revolutionized the way we think of genes and the effect we can have on our own behavior and health.  More importantly, it has redifined the way in which we can affect our offspring.

Epigenetics is derived form the word ‘epi’ which is Greek for ‘above, or outer.’ Researchers have located centers outside of the nucleotides of DNA called epigenetic centers that can be altered and affect our health as well as the way we think and behave.  These centers can be altered without changing the underlying DNA sequence of our beings.  And yet, despite the DNA remaining physically unchanged, traits can be passed down to future offspring through these epigenetic changes creating temporary but fundamental changes (1 – 70 or more generations) to genetic makeup.   This has profound implications for our current theories regarding inheritance and evolution.

The bad news first:  the detrimental choices you make to your health, like smoking cigarettes, can in fact effect the genetic behavior of your children.

The good news: we are at no time utterly bound by our genes.  For good or bad, change is always an option!

This Time article does a great job explaining the history, theories and contemporary research currently being implemented in the field of epigenetics.

This places a new level of responsibility on each and every one of us.  Your decision to become a musician may turn your great great great great grand daughter into the next Rebecca Black.  Just remember, it was your fault!

This discovery stresses the importance of holding ourselves accountable for the future.  Our genes aren’t just a factor of the person we choose to mate with, they are molded by every moment of our lives.  A famous Iroquois saying tells people to think of everything they do or say with 7 generations ahead in mind. Epigenetics is telling us the same thing, except instead of 7 generations, think 1000.