Communication impairments are some of the most debilitating consequences of a number of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It is thought that the communication impairments associated with neurodevelopmental disorders may be due to the perturbed assembly of brain areas involved in vocal communication. In recent years a number of genes, including the transcription factor FoxP2 and its target CNTNAP2, have been linked to language specific impairments and to ASD in humans, suggesting that they could play a direct role in speech and language acquisition. However, the lack of adequate animal models to specifically study vocal learning and communication has prevented the dissection of the genetic components involved in communication behaviors. Songbirds are currently the best animal model to study vocal communication because song learning in these animals shares critical features with speech acquisition in humans. Moreover, songbirds have a dedicated brain circuit that is required for the learning and production of vocal signals. Finally, both Foxp2 and CNTNAP2 are expressed in the song system suggesting that speech acquisition in humans and song learning in songbirds involves similar molecular pathways. Thus, songbirds could be an excellent model to study the genetic basis of communication-related aspects of neurodevelopmental disorders, as they represent the ideal system to study how genes orchestrate the assembly of a brain circuit dedicated to vocal learning and production. Our laboratory has developed new methods for the genetic modification of songbirds that will enable us and other researchers to generate genetic animal models for vocal communication disorders. In this proposal we describe a plan to generate genetically-engineered songbirds deficient in CNTNAP2, which will open a new avenue for investigating the role of genes on the assembly and function of the brain circuits involved in vocal communication. This approach should lead to a better understanding on how mutations in this and other genes result in communication deficits such as the ones observed in patients with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
Impaired vocal communication is one of the most debilitating deficits observed in a number of diseases due to abnormal brain development, such as autism. Recent studies have identified several genes associated with autism and other disorders that impair communication. Songbirds are currently the best animal model to study vocal communication because song learning in these animals shares several critical features with speech acquisition in humans. We propose to generate a genetically-engineered songbird in which one of these autism-related genes is disrupted to investigate how genes orchestrate the assembly of the brain circuits involved in vocal communication.