Monday, August 13, 2012

Singing mice help us study language problems

Did you know mice can sing? A species called S. teguina from the tropical cloud forests in the mountains of Costa Rica have the ability to communicate by song, similar to the way birds do. Their chirps carry over long distances in the wild, and are often used to attract males or to display dominance. Such singing mice are unique to their kind, and are of interest to scientists wishing to learn more about how language develops in humans.

Genes
Scientists from the University of Texas in Austin were interested in the genes that help S. teguina produce their songs. Because mice are often used as model organisms for humans, understanding mouse songs may help to understand language in humans. In experiments, lab mice were given recordings of songs made by their own kind, after which the researchers looked at which genes were activated due to listening.
Activation
According to the scientists, a gene called Foxp2 plays a pivotal role in mouse songs. This gene became activated in brain cells after the experimental procedures, suggesting that it plays a role in integrating the information in the brain. It seems that Foxp2 activation is essential to understanding songs, in the same way that we understand language. However, it is not yet known how Foxp2 performs its function, which means that more molecular research is necessary to uncover the mechanism.

Speech disorders
Foxp2 is very similar in structure in mice and humans. It is therefore likely that their function overlaps, as is the case with many other genes as well. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that Foxp2 was previously associated with speech disorders in humans, highlighting that there is a clear functional link with the same molecule in singing mice. Dysfunctional Foxp2 results in problems with grammar, or the inability to produce the right sounds for speech.

Outlook
Studying singing mice and the role of Foxp2 may help us learn more about human language problems, which makes these mice an interesting new study tool. The gene was already found to be necessary for songbirds, but they are less suitable as a model organism because they are not mammals. In any case, singing mice are an interesting phenomenon: should you be interested in hearing their songs, there is a demonstration video below. Do note that it is played in slow motion, because they normally make their sounds so fast it is hard to distinguish it from the chirping sounds of other animals.

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