Abstract: Series 113, Lecture 4

The Harvey Lectures Series 113 (2017—2018)

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Lecture #4: Thursday, February 15, 2018 — Time and Location

Dissecting the Molecular Mechanisms of Vocal Learning and Spoken Language

Erich D Jarvis, PhD

Erich D Jarvis, PhD

Professor & Head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Rockefeller University

New York, New York

Dr Jarvis's Website

Vocal learning is a specialized and rare trait necessary for spoken language in humans and song in song learning birds. In this lecture I will present the latest findings and views on our understanding of the brain pathways, genes, and vocal learning behavior in humans and the rare non-human animals that can imitate vocalizations, song learning birds. Humans and song learning birds have evolved similar specialized brain pathways and genes for vocal learning. Non-human primates and vocal non-learning birds have limited or no such forebrain vocal pathways, but yet possess forebrain pathways for learning and production of other motor behaviors. To explain these findings, I propose a motor theory of vocal learning origin, in which brain pathways for vocal learning evolved by brain pathway duplication of an ancestral motor learning pathway. Once a vocal learning circuit is established, it functions similarly as the adjacent motor learning circuits, but with some divergences in neural connectivity. Some species have a rudimentary brain pathway, such as mice, and when human mutations of the speech associated gene FoxP2 gene is introduced to them, they show some rudimentary syntax deficits of those ones seen in humans and song learning birds. These studies are leading to a clearer understanding of the evolution and basic mechanisms of speech and other complex behaviors, as well as their pathologies and repair.