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New study links generational language problems to gene mutations

One family's multi-generational language problems may be attributed to a specific gene mutation, according to a new study. Josie Briscoe, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bristol, along with David Skuse, MRCP, MRCPsych, an expert on language development at the Institute of Child Health at University College in London, published their research today on the abnormal language difficulties experienced by the family. According to the study, affected members have trouble both associating sets of similar words and with connecting words to their meanings. An article posted on Nature News explains:

Briscoe and her team believe that the family members' problem is not caused by poor memory or difficulty recognizing things. When challenged to name objects and action words depicted in drawings, family members performed just as well as controls.

But when JR family members erred in those word naming tests, their mistakes tended to occur between conceptually similar words: 'alligator' and 'crocodile' or 'denture' and 'teeth'. In another test, family members struggled to pick out two words of similar meaning, such as 'revive' and 'resuscitate,' from a longer list. The same thing happens in real life. At a party, one female family member asked a dog breeder how long she had been "evolving" dogs.

The family's dysfunctional cognitive abilities appeared gene-related after researchers took a closer look at brain scans of the affected family members:

Under the gaze of a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, the brains of affected JR family members looked slightly different from their controls. They tended to have less grey matter -- neurons and glial cells -- in brain regions that have been linked to processing word meaning in healthy adults and in people with a neurological condition called semantic dementia. But unlike the symptoms of semantic dementia, the language problems of JR family members do not worsen with age, Briscoe says.

Previously: Study shows bilingualism may enhance attention and working memory
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