Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

Lab in Focus; Dr Dianne Newbury

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Dr Dianne Newbury

For many, the ability to learn a language in infancy is considered an inherent skill and a basic stage of development. But the complex process of understanding and using language to communicate, is all too often taken for granted. Around 5-10% of the population are affected by speech and language disorders in childhood and for those affected, this can often have a wider impact on the rest of their lives. Factors such as poor educational attainment at school and a poor development of essential key skills, can go on to have repercussions in later life that hinder various aspects of a person’s social and professional sphere.

Dr Dianne Newbury has been researching speech and language disorders for several years now and is particularly interested in identifying the genetic blueprint that contributes to a person’s ability to assimilate these skills in childhood. Surprisingly little is known about the underlying cause of these disorders. Through her research group, now based at Oxford Brookes, Dianne hopes to continue exploring the genes responsible and revealing the codes in our own DNA that identify how humans develop the remarkable ability to learn language and to use it to communicate.

Following a PhD at Oxford and a subsequent MRC five year funded research post, Dianne decided to apply for the opportunity of Senior Lecturer in the department of Biological and Medical Sciences (BMS), here at Oxford Brookes. The post was established by Brookes to initiate a new MSc in Genetics and Genomics; a natural fit for both the skills and research objectives of Dianne and her team.

Dianne started working at Brookes in October 2015, but it was only in November 2016 that members of her Oxford lab were moved across to Brookes and work began full time. The team have had a busy few months; winning a Central Research Fund award and continuing with their other research projects overseas.

Central Research Fund (CRF) award

The CRF award won by Dianne and team will help them to identify genetic contributions to speech and language development:

“There are many factors that underlie successful speech and language acquisition. For example there may be a problem with memory or absorbing speech sounds and partitioning them, so we look at the different combinations of genes and how these may put a child at risk of developing speech and language disorders. Each gene may have a very small contribution in itself, but it is in combination that they may cause problems. Some of those risk variants fall within different pathways, such as memory.”

This award will enable the team to study a particular Serbian family who have exceptional short term working memory. Two members of this family (the father and one daughter) can even speak backwards fluently. Dianne has already sequenced the DNA from some individuals within the family and has identified a very rare genetic mutation present in the father and daughter only; the same duo capable of conversing backwards. This rare mutation has not been seen or reported before, but as it is located in a gene that functions in acetylcholine receptor pathways, there is now a research overlap with the BMS group led by Professor Isabel Bermudez-Diaz, who have worked in this exact area. Dianne and Isabel’s groups will collaborate to investigate what the mutation found does to the protein produced. The mutation may actually make that protein more efficient, which might then explain the exceptional working memory of the Serbian father and child. In the wider context, Dianne explains:

“This research might inform us about what that protein or other proteins do to help memory processes. This may shed light on why some children have difficulties with speech and language. Then we’d like to look at the genes of speech and language deficient groups, to assess if the genes within these cohorts have a particular genetic signature that is more common in the genes of those with speech and language impediments.”

Keep a look out for the upcoming research videos further explaining the work of Dianne's team, which will be available online later this semester.