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The gene for learning how to speak

Is it a person’s genes or their education?

Neurologists, psychologists, biochemists and other scientists often take one side or the other in explaining behavioral and personality traits as diverse as infidelity, depression, chocolate addiction or the ability to play music.

In more developed cultures, everything is treated as a chemical imbalance that is easily fixed with a pill or two. Others believe it is years of psychotherapy that will modify behavior in order to take the person to their desired state.

In the area that interests us, researchers at the University of Edinburgh conducted a five-year study of more than 500 families with up to five children each, and identified a gene that could explain how children develop language. The gene, called ROBO1, helps brain cells to recognize and translate the sounds of speech, which are incomprehensible to babies, and give them meaning.

A specific variant of ROBO1 causes the brain to store these sounds for short times in order to associate them with things or concepts.

According to the researchers, who worked in collaboration with their counterparts from the University of Queensland, Australia, this discovery may help us understand speech disorders, dyslexia and short-term memory problems.

Over time, these discoveries could be key to the rapid learning of foreign languages, or to replicate the process so that computers can “talk” and “translate” even better.

Spanish version: El gen para aprender a hablar