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Genetic component of language learning identified

Scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Queensland have identified a gene associated with the process of language learning in infants.

The gene, called ROBO1, is found in a region of the genome that is known to be associated with language deficits.  ROBO1 is already known to be involved in brain development, but this is the first study to link it to language learning.

In the five year study, the researchers assessed the language learning abilities for the offspring of 538 families.  They then correlated this with genetic information from the participants.  The researchers found that changes in the genetic sequence of ROBO1 were significantly correlated with the brains ability to store speech sounds for a short period of time (the technical term is 'phonological buffer capacity').  This process is an essential part of language learning.

Professor Timothy Bates, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, who led the research, said: "The discovery of the ROBO1 gene helps to understand how speech sounds can be stored long enough to be integrated with meaning."

The team hopes that their genetic discovery will help us to better understand the speech disorders, dyslexia and short-term memory problems that affect up to one in 10 children in the UK.

Laura Bailey


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