Bridging the gap between genes and language

A new department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is solely devoted to language and genetics

September 28, 2010

On October 1, 2010, the MPI for Psycholinguistics will be extended with a new department on Language and Genetics, headed by Dr. Simon E. Fisher of Oxford University.

Human children have an unparalleled capacity to acquire sophisticated speech and language skills. Despite the huge complexity of the task, most children learn their native languages almost effortlessly, and do not need formal teaching to achieve a rich linguistic repertoire. It has long been suspected that the answers to this enigma lie buried in our genetic makeup. This idea has gained considerable support from recent studies of children who suffer from inherited difficulties with language. The new MPI department on Language & Genetics will extend and move beyond this research, using dramatic advances in molecular technologies to discover how the human genome helps to build a language-ready brain.

'We aim to uncover the DNA variations which ultimately affect different facets of our communicative abilities, not only in children with language-related disorders but also in the general population, and even through to people with exceptional linguistic skills', says Simon Fisher. 'Our work attempts to bridge the gaps between genes, brains, speech and language, by integrating molecular findings with data from other levels of analysis, particularly cell biology and neuro-imaging. In addition, we hope to trace the evolutionary history and worldwide diversity of the key genes, which may shed new light on language origins.'

Such multidisciplinary research efforts will benefit from very strong interactions with the existing groups and experts at the MPI for Psycholinguistics. 'This is a unique endeavour', Fisher states. 'It will be the first research department entirely devoted to tracing the functional connections between genes and language.'

Prior to joining the MPI, Simon Fisher was a Royal Society Research Fellow at Oxford University. His earlier research includes investigations of the functions of FOXP2, the first gene to have been implicated in speech and language, which he and his colleagues discovered in 2001. Fisher is author of 70 journal articles, and his international awards include the Francis Crick Prize Lecture in 2008 and the Eric Kandel Young Neuroscientists Prize in 2009.

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