Speech Genetics (Robinson Crusoe Island)
Speech and language disorders are a common childhood developmental issue (7% of children) (Norbury et al. 2016) and result in an increased lifetime risk of mental health issues and poor life outcomes (Conti-Ramsden et al. 2008). Despite being so common, we understand little of the biology underpinning disorders of speech, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that genetic risk, or susceptibility, plays an important role. The identification of genetic risk factors for speech and language disorder may also help explain why language ability is so often affected in related disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental dyslexia, intellectual learning disability or ADHD.
Using recent advances in genetic technologies, I am investigating genetic contributions to speech and language disorders in the inhabitants of Robinson Crusoe Island (RCI), Chile. The island was colonised in the late 19th century, and is physically isolated, over 600km away, from the mainland. Most of the people who live there today are related to the original 62 founders. Two-thirds of Islander children have speech and language disorder, 10-fold higher than expected.
The Genetics of Face Recognition
We know there is something special about the way we interact with faces. From an early age, both animals and humans show a clear preference for faces over other visual stimuli - new born babies will actively choose to look at images of faces (Goren et al 1975), and can identify their mother over other females after only two days (Bushnell 1989). The ability to discriminate between faces allows us to establish individual identity and plays an important role in human bonding and social exchange. The lack of ability to recognise peers by their faces often leads to struggles with social isolation and mental health issues. It is a fundamental and vital part of human behaviour, one which develops so early in our development, that we almost take it for granted. Despite it being pivotal to our success as a social species, we understand little of how the brain recognises faces, or which neuro-molecular pathways are involved in this essential process.
Super recognisers can recognise faces they have only glimpsed before. Most people can recognise about 20% of the faces they see, whereas a super recogniser can remember up to 95%. This super ability is thought to occur in less than 1% of the population.
Face recognition plays an important role in the Metropolitan Police who use super recognisers to identify suspects from CCTV footage. Following the 2011 London riots, a single super recogniser identified 190 suspects from grainy images and footage, in stark comparison with the Met’s state-of-the-art computer software that only successfully identified one.
In collaboration with Dr Josh Davis (University of Greenwich), we are studying the genetics of individuals with extreme face recognition ability - super recognisers.
If you think you might be a super recogniser, click here to take the test http://superrecognisers.com/
Research grants and awards
2017 - Oxford Brookes University Santander Research Scholarship Award Scheme - £1500
2011-2015 - Dora Lush Biomedical Post Graduate Research Scholarship, National Health and Medical Research Council - AU$78,750
2011 - 2015 - Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation scholarship top-up award - AU$15,750
2011-2014 - Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation student travel award - AU$9000