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Secret in a Song


By Cameron Vernali '20

Published Sep 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Scientists are finding that songs from birds may provide more than just their pleasing sound.

Songbirds have provided beautiful sounds for humans to appreciate for eons, but now they’ve given humankind an even greater gift: a potential insight into how to treat speech disorders.

Stephanie White, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, is the senior author of a study that investigated gene activity in songbirds when they sang. The study focused on male zebra finches and their ability to learn songs before and after the critical learning period related to genetics. The study targeted two main points of interest: Area X, a part of the brain known to be responsible for vocal control, and FoxP2, a master gene in Area X. FoxP2 includes a full-length version of the protein that manages other genes, and a shorter version whose function is currently unknown.

There is a critical period in the early life of songbirds when they most easily learn vocal communication skills, just as humans learn languages most easily in youth. In this critical period of time, the team found, FoxP2 levels change drastically for young finches. When the older songbirds sang, FoxP2 declined in Area X; this decrease prompted thousands of other genes in that region to change their activity.

“We found sets of genes in young birds whose levels change when they sing, and [that] are linked to learning,” says White. “These patterns disappear in older birds. Many of these genes are essential to human language development.”

After finding the genes that correspond to these learning abilities, White and her team wanted to see the effects of a technique similar to gene therapy employed on FoxP2. The study found that when using this method on the longer version of FoxP2, adult songbirds’ FoxP2 levels remained high when they would ordinarily have declined. The incongruity between the FoxP2 levels and the birds’ singing led to a disruption in learning. However, when therapy was applied to the shorter version of FoxP2, the variability in song versions lessened.

The findings of the study, while groundbreaking on their own, assume a new level of importance when taking into account that FoxP2 — the gene in songbirds — is also present in humans. White thinks that the cellular basis for vocal learning could be related to FoxP2 and the changes it causes in Area X.

This study is especially useful because scientists do not know much about vocal communication in humans on a cellular level. Studying songbirds and understanding what genes correlate to vocal utterances can open the door to learning more about our own communication. A fuller understanding of vocal communication in humans through genes can lead to new treatments for speech problems, such as the impairments caused by a mutated version of FoxP2 or autism.