Prof. Dr. Constance Scharff

Animal Behaviour

Freie Universität Berlin

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Research interest:

Do special “human” genes provide the biological substrate for uniquely human traits, such as language? Genetic aberrations of the human FoxP2 gene impair speech production and comprehension, yet the relative contributions of FoxP2 to brain development and function are unknown. Songbirds are a useful model to address this because, like human youngsters, they learn to vocalize by imitating the sounds of their elders. Previously, we found that when young zebra finches learn to sing or when adult canaries change their song seasonally, FoxP2 is up-regulated in Area X, a brain region important for song plasticity. We recently reduced FoxP2 levels in Area X before zebra finches started to learn their song, using virus-mediated RNA interference for the first time in songbird brains. Birds with experimentally lowered levels of FoxP2 imitated their tutor's song imprecisely and sang more variably than controls. FoxP2 thus appears to be critical for proper song development. These results suggest that humans and birds may employ similar molecular substrates for vocal learning, which can now be further analyzed in an experimental animal system.  We are currently functionally characterizing FoxP2 on the molecular level in vitro and in the living animal using the lentiviral expression.

 

Methods:

Molecular Biology including RNAi, Neuroanatomy, Immunohistochemistry, In Situ Hybridizations, Mikrosurgery, Bird song recordings and analysis

 

Selected publications

 

Bolhuis JJ, Okanoya K, Scharff C. Twitter evolution: converging mechanisms in birdsong and human speech. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Nov;11(11):747-59.

 

Schulz SB, Haesler S, Scharff C, Rochefort C. (2010) Knockdown of FoxP2 alters spine density in Area X of the zebra finch. Genes Brain Behav. Oct;9(7):732-40.

 

Warren WC, Clayton DF, Ellegren H, Arnold AP, Hillier LW, Künstner A, Searle S, White S, Vilella AJ, Fairley S, Heger A, Kong L, Ponting CP, Jarvis ED, Mello  CV, Minx P, Lovell P, Velho TA, Ferris M, Balakrishnan CN, Sinha S, Blatti C, London SE, Li Y, Lin YC, George J, Sweedler J, Southey B, Gunaratne P, Watson M,  Nam K, Backström N, Smeds L, Nabholz B, Itoh Y, Whitney O, Pfenning AR, Howard J, Völker M, Skinner BM, Griffin DK, Ye L, McLaren WM, Flicek P, Quesada V, Velasco G, Lopez-Otin C, Puente XS, Olender T, Lancet D, Smit AF, Hubley R, Konkel MK, Walker JA, Batzer MA, Gu W, Pollock DD, Chen L, Cheng Z, Eichler EE, Stapley J, Slate J, Ekblom R, Birkhead T, Burke T, Burt D, Scharff C, Adam I, Richard H, Sultan M, Soldatov A, Lehrach H, Edwards SV, Yang SP, Li X, Graves T, Fulton L, Nelson J, Chinwalla A, Hou S, Mardis ER, Wilson RK. (2010) The genome of a songbird. Nature. 1;464(7289):757-62.

 

Haesler S, Rochefort C, Georgi B, Licznerski P, Osten P, Scharff C. (2007) Incomplete and inaccurate vocal imitation after knockdown of FoxP2 in songbird basal ganglia nucleus Area X. PLoS Biol. Dec;5(12):e321

 

Rochefort C, He X, Scotto-Lomassese S, Scharff C. (2007) Recruitment of FoxP2-expressing neurons to area X varies during song development. Dev Neurobiol. May;67(6):809-17

 

Scotto-Lomassese S, Rochefort C, Nshdejan A, Scharff C. (2007) HVC interneurons are not renewed in adult male zebra finches. Eur J Neurosci. Mar;25(6):1663-8.

 

Haesler S, Wada K, Nshdejan A, Morrisey EE, Lints T, Jarvis ED, Scharff C.(2004) FoxP2 expression in avian vocal learners and non-learners. J Neurosci. Mar 31;24(13):3164-75