An evolutionary perspective on FoxP2: strictly for the birds?
FoxP2 mutations in humans are associated with a disorder that affects both the comprehension of language and its production, speech. This discovery provided the first opportunity to analyze the genetics of language with molecular and neurobiological tools. The amino acid sequence and the neural expression pattern of FoxP2 are extremely conserved, from reptile to man. This suggests an important role for FoxP2 in vertebrate brains, regardless of whether they support imitative vocal learning or not. Its expression pattern pinpoints neural circuits that might have been crucial for the evolution of speech and language, including the basal ganglia and the cerebellum. Recent studies in songbirds show that during times of song plasticity FoxP2 is upregulated in a striatal region essential for song learning. This suggests that FoxP2 plays important roles both in the development of neural circuits and in the postnatal behaviors they mediate.