Purpose of the review: A reduced dosage of the transcription factor FOXP2 leads to speech and language impairments probably owing to deficits in cortical and subcortical neural circuits. Based on evolutionary sequence analysis it has been proposed that the two amino acid substitutions that occurred on the human lineage have been positively selected. Here I review recent studies investigating the functional consequences of these two substitutions and discuss how these first endeavors to study human brain evolution can be interpreted in the context of speech and language evolution.
Recent findings: Mice carrying the two substitutions in their endogenous Foxp2 gene show specific alterations in dopamine levels, striatal synaptic plasticity and neuronal morphology. Mice carrying only one functional Foxp2, show additional and partly opposite effects suggesting that FOXP2 has contributed to tuning cortico-basal ganglia circuits during human evolution. Evidence from human and songbird studies suggest that this could have been relevant during language acquisition or vocal learning, respectively.
Summary: FOXP2 could have contributed to the evolution of human speech and language by adapting cortico-basal ganglia circuits. More generally the recent studies allow careful optimism that aspects of human brain evolution can be investigated in model systems such as the mouse.
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