Deconstructing language by comparative gene expression: from neurobiology to microarray
Language is a defining characteristic of our species that has emerged quite recently on an evolutionary timescale. Understanding the neurobiological substrates and genetic underpinnings of language constitutes a basic challenge for both neuroscience and genetics. The functional localization of language in the brain has been progressively refined over the last century through studies of aphasics and more recently through neuroimaging. Concurrently, structural specializations in these brain regions have been identified by virtue of their lateralization in humans and also through comparisons with homologous brain regions in non-human primate species. Comparative genomics has revealed the genome of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, to be astonishingly similar to our own. To explore the role that changes in the regulation of gene expression have had in recent human evolution, several groups have used microarrays to compare expression levels for thousands of genes in the brain between humans and chimpanzees. By applying this approach to the increasingly refined peri-sylvian network of brain regions involved in language, it may be possible to discern functionally significant changes in gene expression that are universal among humans but unique to our species, thus casting light on the molecular basis of language in the brain.
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