I am interested in understanding how human speech and language are biologically encoded, how these abilities evolved, and the causes of language related disorders. I was drawn to this research area during my DPhil at the University of Oxford that sought to understand the functions of genes that cause speech and language disorders.
I demonstrated how patient mutations in one such gene, FOXP2, cause altered neurodevelopment in mouse and human models, and identified a relationship between FOXP2 and the CNTNAP2 gene, demonstrating a novel genetic mechanism shared across clinically distinct language-related syndromes.
In 2016, I was awarded a Max Planck Research Group (MPRG) Grant and a Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) Research Grant to establish a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.
My group uses bats for comparative studies of speech and language relevant traits. We focus on the abilities of bats to learn novel vocalizations (vocal learning), an ability they share with humans, and that underlies the human ability to learn to communicate via spoken language. I am a founding director of the Bat1K genome project that aims to sequence the genomes of all living bat species (www.bat1k.com), a Donders institute affiliated principal investigator, a visiting professor at the University of Turin, and a member of the FENS-KAVLI network of excellence (http://fenskavlinetwork.org/).
Education and positions held
- 2004 – 2009
- Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil), The University of Oxford (University College), United Kingdom.
Our research group focuses on the study of vocal communication in mammals as a way to understand the biological basis of human speech and language and how this trait evolved.
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, for example, the ability to learn vocalizations from other members of their social group. Currently very little is known about the genetic basis for these sophisticated vocal behaviors in non-human mammals. Studying such species can provide clues about how human language evolved, and how language abilities are encoded in the brain and the genome.
We use cutting-edge neuro-molecular techniques to identify genes and neural circuits that are important for vocal communication and learned vocalizations in bats. Our work has demonstrated the feasibility of neurogenetic studies in bats, identified sites of action for key language-related genes in the brains of vocal learning bats, and their potential to contribute to our understanding of human speech and language. This new research area is allowing us to characterise the biology underlying vocal learning in mammals and will ultimately inform our understanding of spoken language in humans.
- Vernes SC & Wilkinson, G – Behaviour, biology, and evolution of vocal learning in batsPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Invited – Special Issue). 375.https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0061
- Lattenkamp EZ, Vernes SC*(*corresponding author) & Wiegrebe, L – Volitional control of social vocalisations and vocal usage learning in bats. Journal of Experimental Biology. jeb.180729. doi:10.1242/jeb.180729
- Lattenkamp EZ & Vernes SC – Vocal learning: a language-relevant trait in need of a broad cross-species approach. Current Opinion in Behavioural Science (Invited – Special Issue). 21:209-215. doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.04.007
- Rodenas-Cuadrado P, Mengede J, Schmid TA, Devanna P, Yartsev M, Firzlaff U, & Vernes SC – Mapping the distribution of language related genes FoxP1, FoxP2 and CntnaP2 in the brains of vocal learning bat species. Journal of Comparative Neurology. 526(8):1235-1266. doi: 10.1002/cne.24385
- Devanna P, Chen S, Ho J, Gajewski D, Smith SD, Gialluisi A, Francks C, Fisher SE, Newbury D & Vernes SC – Next-gen sequencing identifies non-coding variation disrupting miRNA binding sites in neurological disorders. Molecular Psychiatry. 23(5):1375–1384 doi: 10.1038/mp.2017.30