Area X: The Genes of song

I learned something new today — yes, our genetic makeup influences how we  behave, but our behavior also changes or enhances our genetic makeup.  It’s a two-way street. That is somehow hopeful.

As reported in the journal Neuron, a UCLA team of researchers “discovered that some 2,000 genes in a region of the male zebra finch’s brain known as “Area X” are significantly linked to singing. More than 1,500 genes in this region, a critical part of the bird’s song circuitry, are being reported for the first time.”

The researchers believe that “the 2,000 genes — which are also shared by humans — are likely important for human speech.”  Some disorders, such as autism, are believed to have a genetic component, and this is a step toward understanding how that works.

The cool thing about the research, to me anyway, is that yes, our speech is regulated by genes, but when we speak, the genes are energized and changed — that is, our behavior can change the way our brains work.  The researchers write that “If you’re a professional pianist, for example, you actually expand the territory in your brain that is devoted to playing the piano. When you practice the piano, a suite of genes gets turned on. When you practice hitting a tennis serve or a baseball, a suite of genes gets turned on. Our findings suggest different suites of genes get activated for different behaviors.”

How are “suites of genes” influenced by learning new languages, and speaking them? There is evidence that learning other languages affects many parts of the brain, but so far the mechanisms which cause these beneficial results have not been clearly understood.

Research like this makes me wonder what world our grandchildren will live in.


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