Kurt, S., Fisher, S. E., & Ehret, G. (2012). Foxp2 mutations impair auditory-motor-association learning. PLoS One,7(3), e33130. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033130.
Heterozygous mutations of the human FOXP2 transcription factor gene cause the best-described examples of monogenic speech and language disorders. Acquisition of proficient spoken language involves auditory-guided vocal learning, a specialized form of sensory-motor association learning. The impact of etiological Foxp2 mutations on learning of auditory-motor associations in mammals has not been determined yet. Here, we directly assess this type of learning using a newly developed conditioned avoidance paradigm in a shuttle-box for mice. We show striking deficits in mice heterozygous for either of two different Foxp2 mutations previously implicated in human speech disorders. Both mutations cause delays in acquiring new motor skills. The magnitude of impairments in association learning, however, depends on the nature of the mutation. Mice with a missense mutation in the DNA-binding domain are able to learn, but at a much slower rate than wild type animals, while mice carrying an early nonsense mutation learn very little. These results are consistent with expression of Foxp2 in distributed circuits of the cortex, striatum and cerebellum that are known to play key roles in acquisition of motor skills and sensory-motor association learning, and suggest differing in vivo effects for distinct variants of the Foxp2 protein. Given the importance of such networks for the acquisition of human spoken language, and the fact that similar mutations in human FOXP2 cause problems with speech development, this work opens up a new perspective on the use of mouse models for understanding pathways underlying speech and language disorders.