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Sticking the 'Human Language Gene' in Mice Makes Them Smarter

Sep 15, 2014 05:27 PM EDT
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In a bizarre attempt to better understand human and animal genealogy, researchers recently inserted what they call the "human language gene" into lab mice. The results shockingly revealed that these mice were making significantly faster and better decisions, hinting at how key the gene was to human evolution.

The gene FOXP2 was first identified as a major player in complex language development back in 1990, and has since been the subject of some intensive studies.

According to New Scientist, past research has revealed that human evolution can, in some small way, be characterized by two key mutations of the gene that make it significantly different than how it is expressed in chimpanzees. It is suggested then, that this gene may be directly linked to the stunning development of language learning and vocal abilities.

Now, as described in a study recently published in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), lab mice boasting a humanized version of the FOXP2 gene were able to learn two versions of a complex maze far faster than their standard counterparts.

Despite being exposed to both active and automatic learning-based mazes, the FOXP2 group was munching on maze rewards with ease a whopping four days earlier than standard mice. Interestingly, the rate at which mice exposed to only one type of maze alone learned did not appear to be dependent on the gene.

"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," Ann Graybie, the study's senior author, said in a recent release.

The researchers also found enhanced dopamine activity in a part of the brain that is involved in forming procedures - essentially rewarding the mind for taking deliberate action and making it automatic. Likewise, the FOXP2 mice had brains that shut down those parts of the brain for longer periods of time - enabling the mice to more easily learn new tasks without being stuck in incorrect habits.

Graybie and her team believe this helps "tune" the brain to actively learn and then automize complex activity like language.

This then begs the question, "what would happen if we were to insert this gene into chimps?"

We may never know due to ethical restrictions, but the idea is horrifying enough. This reporter believes we would do well to avoid a Planet of the Apes apocalypse.

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