Poring over the genes affecting language

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Poring over the genes affecting language


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A UI language study explores genetic causes of potential problems in children.

By Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw

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Researchers at the University of Iowa are recruiting individuals to carry out a five-year study that explores the connection between genetics and language ability.

Finding the connection between the genetics and language ability will eventually help to earlier diagnose children with language problems, said Jacob Michaelson, a UI assistant professor of psychiatry. If the study proves to be successful, one day, individuals may know as early as the birth of their child if he or she carries the risk of developing a language impediment, he said.

Michaelson received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in order to carry out the study. Michaelson and his team of researchers have started examining the biological basis of language impairment through whole-genome sequencing.

The study, he said, will potentially include the DNA of 400 children — half with little to no language impediments and the other half with various language issues.

“Does asking the question of, ‘What is the difference between the children in the study?’ leads us to questions like, ‘Is this a gene that is highly present during brain development?’” Michaelson said.

The DNA was collected in the 1990s by UI Professor Emeritus J. Bruce Tomblin in research about language impediments in children.

Tomblin’s collection led to Michaelson obtaining “a freezer full of DNA” to work with, Michaelson said.

UI graduate research assistant Tanner Koomar is examining the DNA sequences.

In order to get an accurate representation of where the individual falls on the human reference genome, Koomar uses software that aligns the genomes in order to better classify the individual’s DNA. Although this method has been described by the researchers as difficult, they said it is necessary when comparing an individual for classification.

With a better understanding of the specific genes, families will find it easier to obtain help, Michaelson said.

Because of the lack of knowledge on the specific genes thus far, he said, children who are being studied were not given the chance of further prevention that those after this study may obtain.

“An eventual hope is to increase awareness, but we would like eventually to be able to get earlier interventions for kids,” Koomar said.

Michaelson, who has a history in genetic studies on autism, said the study will be important because there hasn’t been much genetic research compared with some other conditions, such as autism.

He believes that there has been a much stronger awareness for autism, which has led to a greater understanding of the disease among the general public.

Mahesh Sasidharan, a UI graduate research assistant, has worked to create an online test to better evaluate one’s language abilities. He looks forward to the results of the study.

“I am hopeful that we will find useful information with the online evaluation to better understand language ability,” he said.