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Finding an Animal Model for Language Development

UCLA's Stephanie White Focuses on Songbirds & FOXP Genes
April 23, 2007

A NAAR-funded researcher appears to have developed an animal model for language development, a core deficit of most individuals with autism.

Stephanie A. White, Ph.D., of the University of California at Los Angeles, has focused her work on the expression of the genes Fox P1 and FoxP2 and found remarkably similar patterns between humans and songbirds. The results of Dr. White's study suggest that gene actions directly related to learned vocalization are similar in both zebra finches and humans and related to a mutation in the gene, FoxP2. The FoxP2 gene has been previously implicated in language and speech disorders, which underscores the importance of this study.

"Our findings make it more likely that FoxP2 plays a critical role for learning speech and vocalization in both humans and songbirds," said Dr. White. "Understanding how FoxP1 and FoxP2 function in the songbird may reveal significant insights into human vocal learning and speech disorders. If we can learn what FoxP1 and FoxP2 are doing during these periods of vocal learning, then we may be able to highlight key developmental moments in children."

In 2002, NAAR awarded a two-year $120,000 grant to Dr. White for her study, “Inside & Outside the Critical Period: Neural Substrates for Vocal Learning.” This grant supported Dr. White's work with songbirds focusing on FOXP genes. The results of this study were published in the March 31, 2004 edition of
The Journal of Neuroscience

“My NAAR grant was absolutely critical in enabling me to conduct the key experiments of this project,” said Dr. White. “I think the funding also gave me some credibility, as I had not previously conducted any studies specific to autism.”

The development of any animal model is a critical step to learning how genes are involved with a particular disease or disorder. In the case of autism, scientists have an especially difficult task since the disorder is characterized by marked abnormalities in the acquisition and use of language and very few animals use language on any complex level. Very few animal groups “learn” their vocalizations. Among those that do, songbirds are believed to be the most appropriate for research. And with both songbirds and humans, vocal learning is believed to occur during a critical developmental window in discrete regions of the brain.

“Dr. White has developed a promising model in an area where there are few insights (i.e. genetic control of language acquisition),” said Andy Shih, Ph.D., chief science officer at NAAR. “This work has the potential to help further our understanding of the biology of language development, which could prove instructive for our understanding of language deficits in autism.”

NAAR's support of Dr. White has resulted in research that may eventually explain why some children with autism never learn to speak or lose what precious language they once had so early in life. In addition, it is very encouraging to see this latest evidence that NAAR is selecting innovative, well-designed investigations that continue to expand our knowledge of autism.