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New Max Planck Research Group awarded to Sonja Vernes to study genetics of vocal communication

Dr Sonja Vernes has been awarded an independent Max Planck Research Group by the Max Planck Society. The new group, which will be hosted by the MPI for Psycholinguistics, will study the genetic foundations of vocal communication in mammals, providing a novel gateway into understanding the biological underpinnings of human language.
New Max Planck Research Group awarded to Sonja Vernes to study genetics of vocal communication

Max Planck Research Groups give exceptional young scientists the opportunity to lead their own independent research group, hosted by a Max Planck Institute.  The recipients of these highly competitive awards are selected by the President of the Max Planck Society, and Dr Vernes is one of only five researchers to be awarded a Max Planck Research Group by the Humanities and Social Sciences Section in 2015.

Complex vocalisations

Dr Vernes’ group, which is funded for five years, will study the genetics of vocal communication in mammals, as a way to understand the evolution and biological basis of human speech and language. Many species of mammal, including our primate cousins, have limited vocal repertoires. But a few mammals such as bats, whales and elephants use complex and varied vocalizations that share some characteristics with human speech such as the ability to learn vocalizations from other members of their social group.

Currently almost nothing is known about the genetic basis for these sophisticated vocal behaviours in other mammals. Studying such species could provide clues about how human language evolved, and how language abilities are encoded in the human genome. Dr Vernes’ group will therefore use cutting-edge molecular techniques to identify genes that are important for vocal communication in non-human mammals. To find out if these genes are also involved in human speech and language, the group will investigate the function of these genes in human cells, and look for relationships between genetic variation and language ability in human populations.

Genetics of language

The new research group will start in October 2015 and build on Dr Vernes’ previous experience investigating the genetics of language. In her doctoral research, Dr Vernes carried out pioneering investigations into the FOXP2 gene, which is mutated in a rare form of speech and language disorder. Her research identified genes that may be regulated by FOXP2 in the developing brain, and thus pointed to molecular links between the FOXP2-related disorder and more common forms of language impairment.

Since 2012 she has been leading a research group in the Language and Genetics Department at the MPI for Psycholinguistics, investigating the links between genes, language, and the wiring of cells in the brain. Her new research group will make use of the Language and Genetics Department’s new state-of-the-art molecular biology laboratories, which are located in the recently-opened new wing of the MPI for Psycholinguistics.

More information

Research Group home page

Sonja Vernes & key publications

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.



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