The FOXP2 gene is found in humans and is very thoroughly studied. It was initially thought to be the key gene that allowed the development of human language. It has now been shown to be related to automatic learning and has even made test mice better at completing tasks.
Initially discovered in the 1990s, it became apparent that a mutation in this gene can cause significant speech difficulties for those who have it. The FOXP2 gene encodes a transcription factor that regulates the expression of a number of key genes during embryonic development. This is also important when looking at it from an evolutionary stand point, as since divergence from chimpanzees 5 to 7 million years ago, the gene has undergone two changes, thought to be important in our development of greater vocal competence.
When the gene was inserted into mice, it caused a change in the area of the brain involved in learning and the outcome was tested using mazes and food rewards. The research conducted by Ann Graybiel and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that they could test conscious, and automatic learning and discovered that the mice with the FOXP2 gene learned to find the rewards faster when the maze was set up to use both forms of learning. However, there was no difference in the rate of change when only one of the two learning type was tested. It showed that the FOXP2 mice were able to respond to visual cues and transfer behaviour from conscious to automatic.
When related to speech, whilst uncertain of its exact effects due to its wide influence in the brain, it is believed that FOXP2 in early humans helped complex movements of the mouth during speech become automatic. Further research will aid clarification of the gene’s exact role in different learning behaviours.
The research, “Humanized FOXP2 accelerates learning by enhancing transitions from declarative to procedural performance” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.