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NIH awards UT Southwestern researchers $4.4 million to study the genetic basis of vocal learning


DALLAS – Oct. 5, 2021 – A UT Southwestern research team has received the National Institutes of Health’s prestigious Transformative Research Award to further their study of zebra finches to investigate the genetic basis of vocal imitation abilities.

Photo of Todd Roberts, Ph.D.
Todd Roberts, Ph.D.

The award grants $4.4 million over five years to Todd Roberts, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Neuroscience, Joseph Takahashi, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Neuroscience, and Kent Hamra, Ph.D., a Senior Research Associate in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Drs. Roberts and Takahashi are members of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.

The Transformative Research Award is part of nearly $9 million in prestigious NIH Director’s Awards received by UT Southwestern researchers today from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Program, which supports scientists pursuing highly innovative research with the potential to have a broad impact on biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences.

Joseph Takahashi, Ph.D.
Joseph Takahashi, Ph.D.

“Zebra finches are a vocal learning species that provide the only practical platform for systematically identifying the genes involved in this important social behavior. Like speech, zebra finch song is a culturally transmitted behavior learned via imitation,” said Dr. Roberts, the principal investigator on this award. “We think a forward genetic screen for mutations that affect vocal imitation, followed by the detailed genetic mapping and manipulations developed through this proposal, will identify genetic signatures for this polygenic trait.”

The scientists are seeking to establish the first mutagenesis screen in a vocal learning species and the genetic tools to independently test the function of identified genes by developing novel transgenic zebra finches using germline gene targeting technologies. The research may shed new light on speech and language deficits associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Photo of Kent Hamra, Ph.D.
Kent Hamra, Ph.D.

Previous research by Dr. Roberts, published in Science Advances, found that inactivating a gene closely associated with autism prevents songbirds from replicating their fathers’ songs.

UT Southwestern rates No. 1 among global institutions in the health care sector in the 2021 Nature Index for its published research, as well as among the top 20 U.S. institutions overall for published research in life sciences journals.

Dr. Roberts is the Thomas O. Hicks Scholar in Medical Research. Dr. Takahashi holds the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,800 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 117,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 3 million outpatient visits a year.