Could birdsong help us solve stuttering?

Think that sparrow whistling outside your bedroom window is nothing more than pleasant background noise? 

A new paper from a CSAIL researcher suggests that we can apply what we know about songbirds to our understanding of human speech production — and, therefore, come closer to identifying and potentially even reducing the prevalence of disorders like stuttering and Huntington’s Disease.

In a paper published in Science this month, CSAIL postdoc Andreas Pfenning and collaborators at Duke University compared genetic maps of brain tissue from three groups: humans, vocal-learning birds, and non-vocal-learning birds and primates.

Their results showed that there are more than 50 different genes that display similar activity patterns in humans and vocal-learning birds — patterns that are distinct from those in the brains of animals incapable of vocal-learning. That is, if a gene was more active in humans, it was more active in songbirds, but not in non-songbirds.

These findings dramatically advance existing research that previously only identified one gene (“FOXP2”) involved in both human and avian language centers. Pfenning says the work shows that genetic experiments involving birds could help scientists learn more about which genes might be involved in different speech conditions in humans.

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