Comparative analyses used to reconstruct the evolution of traits associated with the human language faculty, including its socio-cognitive underpinnings, highlight the importance of evolutionary constraints limiting vocal learning in non-human primates. After a brief overview of this field of research and the neural basis of primate vocalizations, we review studies that have addressed the genetic basis of usage and structure of ultrasonic communication in mice, with a focus on the gene FOXP2 involved in specific language impairments and neuroligin genes (NL-3 and NL-4) involved in autism spectrum disorders. Knockout of FoxP2 leads to reduced vocal behavior and eventually premature death. Introducing the human variant of FoxP2 protein into mice, in contrast, results in shifts in frequency and modulation of pup ultrasonic vocalizations. Knockout of NL-3 and NL-4 in mice diminishes social behavior and vocalizations. Although such studies may provide insights into the molecular and neural basis of social and communicative behavior, the structure of mouse vocalizations is largely innate, limiting the suitability of the mouse model to study human speech, a learned mode of production. Although knockout or replacement of single genes has perceptible effects on behavior, these genes are part of larger networks whose functions remain poorly understood. In humans, for instance, deficiencies in NL-4 can lead to a broad spectrum of disorders, suggesting that further factors (experiential and/or genetic) contribute to the variation in clinical symptoms. The precise nature as well as the interaction of these factors is yet to be determined.
© 2010 The Authors. Genes, Brain and Behavior © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society.