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CORDIS

Revealing the biological bases of speech and language by studying bat vocal learning

Project description

Bats have something to say about the biological foundations of language

The biological origins of speech and language are not fully understood. Scientists are intrigued by how the capacity for language evolved in humans. Bats, which have complex vocalisations for navigation, may help shed light on the molecular mechanisms and neural circuitry that support vocal learning. This is the aim of the ERC-funded BATSPEAK project. It will identify the genetic markers of vocal learning to investigate the molecular mechanisms that underlie mammalian vocal learning. BATSPEAK will also characterise neural mechanisms underlying mammalian vocal learning and use the information to uncover the direct, causative contributions of molecular and neural mechanisms. The findings will benefit the diagnosis and treatment of language-related disorders.

Objective

The overarching goal of BATSPEAK is to shed light on the biological origins of speech and language by analysing the molecular mechanisms and neural circuitry that support vocal learning in the bat, using tools that I have pioneered in this species.

Vocal learning is a fundamental building block of human spoken language and is a trait we share with few other animals. It has only been identified in 4 non-human mammal groups, of which bats are the only tractable model system in which the molecular and neural mechanisms can be addressed, thus providing a unique window onto the biological foundations from which human speech and language evolved.

BATSPEAK has 3 aims:

1. To identify the genomic markers of vocal learning allowing us to probe the molecular mechanisms that underlie mammalian vocal learning
2. To characterise neural mechanisms underlying mammalian vocal learning
3. To determine direct, causative contributions of molecular and neural mechanisms to mammalian vocal learning behaviour

This project will use bats as an exemplar species in which the molecular and neural mechanisms underlying mammalian vocal learning can be understood, and will contain 3 work packages:

WP1. Comparative evolutionary genomics, coupled with gene function and gene expression analyses, to identify the molecular mechanisms underlying vocal learning
WP2. Comparative neuroanatomy, electrophysiology, and transcriptomics to characterise a key neural circuit underlying vocal learning
WP3. Generation of transient transgenic bats to test hypotheses of the role of molecular and neural mechanisms in vocal learning behaviour

Understanding the bases of vocal learning in mammals will shed light on the biology underlying speech and language and provide a new mammalian model for the study of language related disorders.

Host institution

THE UNIVERSITY COURT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS
Net EU contribution
€ 1 935 402,99
Address
NORTH STREET 66 COLLEGE GATE
KY16 9AJ St Andrews
United Kingdom

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Region
Scotland Eastern Scotland Clackmannanshire and Fife
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Links
Total cost
€ 1 935 402,99

Beneficiaries (1)