Mice With a Human Language Gene Have Altered Squeaks and Brain Structure

By Eliza Strickland | May 29, 2009 5:12 pm

lab mouseResearchers have endowed lab mice with the human version of a gene involved in language, and while the mice didn’t exactly sit up and start reciting poetry about cheese, they did show some intriguing differences in both their vocal patterns and brain structure.

Mice have their own form of the gene, called FOXP2, but they and all other animals lack key changes found only in humans and our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals. Some researchers speculate that these differences may help explain why humans are the only animal able to communicate with complex languages, and not simple grunts, barks or songs [New Scientist]. By tweaking the gene in mice and changing it to the human form, researchers hoped to get a clue as to how our early hominid ancestors were changed by the new form of the gene.

The FOXP2 gene’s association with language came to light in 1998 when researchers found a mutated copy of the gene in a British family with a history of severe language disorders. Family members with the mutation have trouble speaking and understanding language [New Scientist]. But researchers stress that FOXP2 shouldn’t be thought of as a single gene responsible for language; instead, its protein product turns on a cascade of other genes that play an important role in many parts of an embryo’s development.

So what happened to the lab mice that were given the human version of the gene? In the study, published in the journal Cell, researchers report that the mice still emitted ultrasonic whistles to attract their mothers attention like normal mice, but the whistles of the transgenic mice had a lower pitch. They demonstrated other behavioral changes, including less willingness to explore their surroundings. But most interestingly, the altered mice had altered brain structures. In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure [The New York Times].

As humans evolved, the changed FOXP2 gene may have “contributed to an increased fine-tuning of motor control necessary for articulation,” the researchers wrote, which is “the unique human capacity to learn and coordinate the muscle movements in lungs, larynx, tongue and lips that are necessary for speech.” The FOXP2 gene affects the development of many organs, including the brain, lungs and esophagus, the researchers said [Bloomberg].

Related Content:
The Loom: Speak, Mouse has more on this research
DISCOVER: Why Has Steven Pinker Studied Verbs for 20 Years?
DISCOVER: Great Mysteries of Human Evolution includes a discussion of the FOXP2 gene
DISCOVER: Sing a Song of Evolution asks whether language evolved from mating calls

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    What about parrots and other ‘talking’ birds (especially that one that could actually string together novel sentences) ? What sort of language gene do they have?

  • Ryan

    Bird reproducing sounds they hear seems very different from a genuine comprehension language or even the limited sign language higher apes have been taught. I hadn’t heard about the parrot that could construct sentences from its “vocabulary”. Could you provide a link?

  • http://alanburkhart.blogspot.com Alan

    A friend has a big gray parrot that loves to perch atop the drapes, then mimic her owner’s voice saying, “Here kitty kitty.” When the cat comes trotting into the room, he gets dive-bombed. The cat falls for it every time because the parrot sounds *exactly* like her owner. Not exactly super-human reasoning, but the bird has figured out how to dupe the cat for his own entertainment.

  • daniel

    Soon, we’ll be able to communicate with our pets almost the way we talk to each other. So, instead of Fido just refusing to eat dogfood out of a bag, now he’s threaten to destroy the couch while you’re asleep, and he might even take you to court. I’m not a hypercaninevolophobe, I’m just saying what could happen.

  • Nova Terata

    Hi, Rick Rubin here. When can we sign??

  • Elegiac View

    This is quite interesting. I cannot say I’m surprised they’ve done this, though. Well, I’m sure we will welcome talking animals, won’t we? Isn’t that why Disney has promoted them so much? ;)

  • shaking head

    @ ryan… not eaxactly what you were asking for but very close.
    http://discovermagazine.com/2009/feb/20-think-animals-dont-think-like-us-think-again

    This parrot is extraordinary

  • JMW

    And no doubt, once we do have talking mice, the first thing that will be done with them will be…live action Stuart Little.

    Sigh. (Shakes head)

  • Jumblepudding

    I am reminded of the Rats of Nimh.

  • Tom

    I’m sure scientists etc will have a much more difficult time experimenting on animals when they can actually look them in the eye and ask ‘why are you doing this to me?’

  • Jef

    alex demonstrated being able to talk about things that aren’t around, which was thought to not be something animals do, but he only did that and other cognitive feats as basically tricks for prizes. the english language was taught on a very rudimentary level as basically a set of commands and responses for studying its cognitive abilities. he did not exhibit language ability on any level even close to a human, just more than was expected from an animal.

  • Jumblepudding

    What about the gray parrot N’Kisi? supposedly he constructed his own terms for things he wasn’t familiar with, such as “pretty smell medicine” for aromatherapy oils. And in the end, aren’t we all using languages in hopes of earning a prize, however abstract that might be? The prize in my mind for writing this is the possibility of having contributed to the discussion, for example, thereby increasing however slightly my sense of self-worth and the possiblity of people giving me cookies.

  • Izzy

    Jumblepudding, I don’t think so. Language started for gossiping. For example, creating alliances with others. So sharing information about the world around us is the purpose of language. It’s that simple.

  • Jumblepudding

    So you’re saying that even gossip, the original use of language, which is often equated to “idle chatter” has a real purpose, and actually carries the reward of an alliance with others, increasing the possibility of cookies. Thanks for proving my flippant point.(edit:my real point was about N’Kisi, not about reward seeking behavior, I am sorry for wasting your time by including an easily misconstrued joke about the belittlement of Alex the parrot’s accomplishments)

  • Warren

    Don’t chimpanzees have remarkable abilities for symbolic thought and language? They don’t have the anatomy to vocalize like humans, but great apes can communicate using sign language or boards with symbols printed on them. The famous gorilla Koko is a good example. I haven’t read about this in any depth for years, but I believe many individual apes have amassed vocabularies of hundreds of words and the ability to use language on the level of a five-year-old human. That’s a lot more than a “simple grunt, bark, or song.”

  • Grant H

    @ Warren:
    A 5 year old? Wow, that would be surprising, in a good way. Do you remember where you obtained that info?

  • Anna

    I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of talking animals – the relationship between humans and animals would change which would be a very positive thing but I’d have to become a vegetarian – the thoughts of livestock begging not to be slaughtered would be very distressing

  • http://inmotionhostingcouponcodes.com/ inmotion hosting coupons

    Iam impressed, you know what you’re talking.

  • jenn

    I would disagree that the “original purpose” of language was gossip, or describing surroundings, or anything at all. Language is the name we give to a system of agreed-upon signals. The system itself arose from a mutation in a gene that encodes, per the article, for proteins used in fine motor coordination. It was a happy accident of evolution, and like all happy accidents of evolution, was neither planned nor purposeful at its outset.

    It is not the hand that we were dealt that had inherent purpose. It is what we have done with it as a species that is significant. We, as humans, have given it the purposes of gossip, description, metaphor, and agreement. What the rats will do with it (if they are allowed to live and breed) is up to them.

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