Language protein differs in males, females

February 19, 2013, Society for Neuroscience

Male rat pups have more of a specific brain protein associated with language development than females, according to a study published February 20 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The study also found sex differences in the brain protein in a small group of children. The findings may shed light on sex differences in communication in animals and language acquisition in people.

Sex differences in early language acquisition and development in children are well documented—on average, girls tend to speak earlier and with greater complexity than boys of the same age. However, scientists continue to debate the origin and significance of such differences. Previous studies showed the Foxp2 plays an important role in speech and language development in humans and in birds and other mammals.

In the current study, J. Michael Bowers, PhD, Margaret McCarthy, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine examined whether sex differences in the expression of the Foxp2 protein in the developing brain might underlie communication differences between the sexes.

The researchers analyzed the levels of Foxp2 protein in the brains of four-day-old female and male rats and compared the ultrasonic distress calls made by the animals when separated from their mothers and siblings. Compared with females, males had more of the protein in associated with cognition, emotion, and . They also made more noise than females—producing nearly double the total vocalizations over the five-minute separation period—and were preferentially retrieved and returned to the nest first by the mother.

When the researchers reduced levels of the Foxp2 protein in the male pups and increased it in female pups, they reversed the sex difference in the distress calls, causing males to sound like females and the females like males. This change led the mother to reverse her behavior as well, preferentially retrieving the over the males.

"This study is one of the first to report a sex difference in the expression of a language-associated protein in humans or animals," McCarthy said. "The findings raise the possibility that sex differences in brain and behavior are more pervasive and established earlier than previously appreciated."

The researchers extended their findings to humans in a preliminary study of Foxp2 protein in a small group of children. Unlike the rats, in which Foxp2 protein was elevated in males, they found that in humans, the girls had more of the Foxp2 protein in the cortex—a brain region associated with language—than age-matched boys.

"At first glance, one might conclude that the findings in rats don't generalize to humans, but the higher levels of Foxp2 expression are found in the more communicative sex in each species," noted Cheryl Sisk, who studies at Michigan State University and was not involved with the study.

Explore further: A gene implicated in speech regulates connectivity of the developing brain

Related Stories

A gene implicated in speech regulates connectivity of the developing brain

July 7, 2011
Foxp2, a gene involved in speech and language, helps regulate the wiring of neurons in the brain, according to a study which will be published on July 7th in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics. The researchers identified ...

Recommended for you

Cognitive training helps regain a younger-working brain

January 23, 2018
Relentless cognitive decline as we age is worrisome, and it is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, ...

Lifting the veil on 'valence,' brain study reveals roots of desire, dislike

January 23, 2018
The amygdala is a tiny hub of emotions where in 2016 a team led by MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye found specific populations of neurons that assign good or bad feelings, or "valence," to experience. Learning to associate pleasure ...

Your brain responses to music reveal if you're a musician or not

January 23, 2018
How your brain responds to music listening can reveal whether you have received musical training, according to new Nordic research conducted in Finland (University of Jyväskylä and AMI Center) and Denmark (Aarhus University).

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.