Sonja C. Vernes
Max Planck Research Group Leader
Sonja Vernes investigates how speech and language relevant traits are biologically encoded, how these abilities evolved, and the causes of language related disorders. During her DPhil at the University of Oxford she sought to understand the functions of genes that cause speech and language disorders. She demonstrated how patient mutations in one such gene, FOXP2, cause altered neurodevelopment in mouse and human models, and identified a relationship between FOXP2 and another gene known as CNTNAP2, showing that they represent a novel genetic mechanism shared across clinically distinct language-related syndromes.
In 2016, Dr. Vernes 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 with the goal to use bats for comparative studies of speech and language relevant traits. Her lab, the Neurogenetics of Vocal Communication Group, focuses on the abilities of bats to learn novel vocalisations (vocal learning), a skill that in humans, allows us learn the huge repertoire of sounds we use to communicate via spoken language. Their work has now 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.
To facilitate the use of bats as a neurogenetic model Dr. Vernes, together with Dr. Emma Teeling (UC Dublin), launched the Bat1K genome sequencing consortium (www.bat1k.com). This international research effort is now underway to sequence the genomes of all living bat species to reference quality resolution.
Together, these new research area is allowing us to characterise the genetics and neural circuitry underlying vocal learning in mammals and will ultimately inform our understanding of spoken language in humans.