The FOXP2 gene, a front-runner to explain the evolution of language in humans, may have rewired the brain to allow more advanced learning, according to preliminary research presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting this month.
In a recent experiment, Christiane Schreiweis of the Max Planck Institute and colleagues looked at the human version of the gene in mice. She challenged mice - some with and without the human version of FOXP2 - to complete a maze by following clues, as detailed in one Nature news article.
After eight days, the mice with the human version of the gene performed better at the maze and appeared to learn the clues faster. The findings suggest the human version of the gene may help form connections in the brain that allow for advanced motor movements and learning. This could potentially explain the gene's role in the development of language roughly half a million years ago.
Mutations of FOXP2 were first found by a researcher at the same institute in a group of related people, called the KE Family, who showed speech impairment when the gene was not working properly.
But FOXP2 isn't unique to humans, with the majority of animals possessing versions of the gene as well.
Another study in songbirds found that when researchers limited the gene from being expressed, the birds had trouble forming vocalizations typical to their species.
Science writer Ed Yong points out that FOXP2's place in human evolution may have more to do with building basic neural connections in the brain rather than regulating language alone.
Overall, it seems that FOXP2 acts as one piece to the larger puzzle of language development. In fact, the gene is thought to control other genes that shape an organism's ability to learn certain motor skills.