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Research in my lab centres around genetic contributions to Developmental Language Disorders. A recent study found that, at school entry in the UK, approximately 10% of children are affected by speech, language or communication impairments (Norbury et al., 2016). Children with developmental language disorders might have problems understanding (receptive) or using (expressive) and boys are more likely to be affected (the cause of this sex bias remains unknown).
As a group these children are less likely to meet educational targets (Norbury et al., 2015) and more likely to display symptoms of social, emotional and behavioural problems when compared to their peers (Norbury et al., 2016).
But yet, we do not know why some children have language difficulties or how these difficulties relate to other aspects of neurodevelopment and behaviour. In our lab, we are trying to identify genetic factors that might play a role in these disorders. We investigate this problem through a mixture of research questions and by studying individuals, families and populations.
Studies show that developmental language disorders run in families - a brother or sister of someone who has already been diagnosed will have an increased risk of developing the disorder themselves. There are two possible situations which may explain this observation: (1) something in the family environment causes the language disorder; or (2) Developmental language disorders are genetic and is therefore caused (at least in part) by the genes passed on from parents to children.
One way in which we are able to distinguish between environmental and genetic effects is to look at twins. Identical twins come from a single egg and so have identical genes. Non identical twins come from two eggs and so share only half their genes. Therefore if genes are important in language development then identical twins should resemble each other more closely than non-identical twins with respect to language skills. Studies show that this is the case. In identical twin pairs, if one twin is affected with language disorder then the other is about 90% likely to be affected. For non-identical twin pairs, if one twin is affected the other is only about 50% likely to also be affected.
Although there is strong evidence for the role of a genetic component in language disorder, we do not know which genes contribute to this disorder or how the inheritance of language problems work. In most cases, it is likely that several genes combine to bring about a heightened risk of disorder. This is known as a complex genetic disorder. Working closely with other collaborators active in this field, we aim to identify specific genetic variants that cause this predisposition and to investigate the kinds of biological processes that they take part in.
The work in our lab is split into six project areas. You can find out more about each area by clicking on the links below.
Information about SLI and support for affected individuals and their families can be found at the Afasic website.
Oxford Sparks have some really great resources and information about science of all kinds in Oxford.
The RALLIcampaign youtube channel has information about language impairments and their impact upon children.