This project extends prior work that discovered genetic mechanisms underlying the uniquely creative periods of song generation, and maps the patterns of gene expression in the brain during development.
Our work for the Tennenbaum Creativity Initiative focuses on FoxP2, a transcriptional repressor. FoxP2 is the only molecule thus far to be directly and repeatedly linked to human speech and language. Mutations in the FOXP2 gene cause difficulty in the ability to make complex, sequential articulatory movements of the face and mouth, necessary for speech. This behavioral limitation is accompanied by structurally and functionally abnormal cortico-striatal circuitry in the affected members of the KE family, the best studied case. The human data thus suggest that FOXP2 is important for the development of neural circuitry that is later used for speech. To investigate FoxP molecules, we use songbirds as they are the only tractable research animal known to learn vocalizations. Songbirds and humans both undergo similar developmental phases in order to learn their vocalizations, using similar brain regions including cortico-striatal circuitry. A great advantage of studying songbirds is that the key areas within each portion of the cortico-striatal circuit that are dedicated to song (as opposed to other behaviors) have been identified. Our previous discoveries work suggests that FoxP2 likely plays post-developmental, in addition to developmental, roles in vocal learning, and further, may be regulated by the social context in which singing occurs. Thus, the study of FoxP2 in birdsong may provide a neuromolecular model for procedurally-learned motor exploration in general.