Human Language Gene Helps Mice Learn

Creepy but cool: Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have inserted the “human language gene” into mice. The result:

Okay, not really. But the gene-spliced mice were able to navigate certain types of mazes faster than their un-enhanced counterparts.  So what does this tell us about how humans developed language?

Mice genetically engineered to carry the human version of the Fox2P gene learned to navigate a maze to find chocolate in only 7 days, compared to the 11 days it took regular mice. The maze was set up to encourage the mice to use two types of memory: procedural memory, which relies on conscious decisions using navigational cues like landmarks, and procedural memory, which relies on routine habits.

The mice with the humanized Fox2P gene only learned faster than regular mice when they were able to use both types of memory. In mazes that only allowed one type of learning, the two groups of mice performed the same. MIT professor Ann Graybiel, a senior author of the study, told MIT News that the results suggest the Fox2P gene helps enable us to use language by learning new words and then forming unconscious, routine associations with the objects they describe.

In the MIT News press release, Graybiel said:

 “This really is an important brick in the wall saying that the form of the gene that allowed us to speak may have something to do with a special kind of learning, which takes us from having to make conscious associations in order to act to a nearly automatic-pilot way of acting based on the cues around us.”

The FOX2P gene isn’t the only gene that affects language function, but it’s one of the most well-known. It was discovered in the 1990s in family with severe inherited speech and language issues.

There is no word yet as to whether the “humanized” Fox2P mice have begun making plans for world domination, but presumably it’s only a matter of time.

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Babies Process Language Same as You

Everything started when three scientists from the University of California in San Diego initiated a study about how babies’ brains are processing all the information they receive every day. Surprisingly, they discovered that babies just over a year old analyse words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, and in the same amount of time. Even if they are too young to talk, they are capable of understanding the meaning of the words, which is a major discovery in the Science world.  In fact, Katherine E. Travis, one of the scientists working on the study says:

“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood.”

Before this study, most of people were assuming that infants would have a completely different mechanism for learning words and that it would take time for them to be able to think like adults. In order to bring tangible proofs to the theory, the scientists put in place two different experiments and examined the babies’ brain activity. Read more