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Population genetics of human communication -



Research programme leader: Dr Beate St Pourcain

About this research programme

Human language is one of the most distinct and fascinating features of humankind. As a system of communication, language supports peer contact and interaction but also cognitive development, learning and knowledge transfer. The understanding of the genetic mechanisms of this complex phenotype is, however, still poor. Our group aims to decipher the genetic basis of language and communication in typically developing children using modern genetic epidemiological analysis techniques.

Current projects

  • Genetics of social communication and social skills

Human social communication and interaction plays an important role in social success, social adjustment and cognitive development, while severe impairments of these skills overlap with the autistic continuum. Our group studies the genetic architecture of social and social communication skills with particular focus on developmental changes over time. Analyses are carried out in collaboration with the University of Bristol, the Birkbeck College, the Karolinska Institutet  and the EAGLE consortium.  

  • Genetics of early language development

Mastering language is an important milestone during a child’s development and early language development predicts children’s performance at school and thus further educational attainment. We have previously identified common variation near the ROBO2 gene as associated with word production during early infancy. Current efforts include now a follow up of this work within the EAGLE consortium to better understand how children learn to speak. 

  • Shared genetic overlaps between phenotypes 

Shared genetic links have been hypothesised for many facets of human language and communication, and difficulties in mastering linguistic skills are part of the phenotypic overlap between multiple psychiatric illnesses. Our research in collaboration with the BROAD institute, the University of Bristol and Cardiff University aims to identify pleiotropic genetic effects among a spectrum of population-based communication abilities and psychiatric disorders. In addition, we developed and implemented in collaboration with QIMR and VCU methods to carry out  multivariate analyses of genetic variances in unrelated individuals, analogous to twin research methodologies (Genetic-relationship-matrix Structural equation modelling).

  • Genetics of head circumference

Craniofacial growth during childhood is a complex process underlying developmental traits such as head circumference and intracranial volume. Our group leads the analysis of common and less frequent genetic variation for head circumference as part of next-generation genetic association studies within the UK10K COHORTS project. 

  • Maternal genetic influences on language abilities

Child growth in utero is one of the most sensitive periods during development, and many adverse influences during pregnancy have been shown to affect the wellbeing and cognitive functioning of children in later life. The assessment of prenatal environmental risk factors through observational epidemiological research is, however, subject to confounding. Our group has recently been involved in the development of a new robust methodology, which utilises maternal genetic information to explain environmental variation through, for example, the intrauterine environment. In collaboration with QIMR, VCU and University of Colorado, we examine in our research whether there is evidence for maternal genetic influences on children’s language development during infancy and childhood.

Last checked 2018-06-12 by Beate St Pourcain
Language and Genetics


Street address
Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Mailing address
P.O. Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Phone: +31-24-3521443
Fax: +31-24-3521213


Simon E. Fisher

Martina Bernhard