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How can studying singing mice help understand language disorders?

Mice use a secret language 10x higher than the human ear can hear. They emit these ultrasonic vocalizations in social contexts and the genetic basis of these signals can provide insight into disorders affecting verbal communication such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Groups assessing genetic mouse models of ASD report reduced numbers of ultrasonic vocalizations as a proxy for the language impairment in ASD patients. These studies focus only on the aggregate properties of vocalisations (like call rate), which, if applied to humans, would be more analogous to voice than to speech. In order to understand if mouse vocalisations constitute a language, we need to know if these rapid calls, emitted at rates of ten per second with complex frequency sweeps and harmonics, correlate with behaviourally relevant events.

Aims

To determine if ultrasonic calls emitted by mice are experience-dependent and used to indicate behavioural events. We aim to explore how an ASD associated mutation may impact on this.

In order to achieve this, we are using deep learning algorithms to automatically identify and classify mouse vocalisations. We have recently identified abnormal social behaviour in a genetic mouse model of Autism Spectrum Disorder and hypothesise that alterations in USV could underlie the phenotype. Utilising playback and precise correlation of ultrasonic vocalisations emissions with social interactions, we will be able to investigate if sequences of call types are perceived at a behavioural level. Then we might be able to claim that these calls are a language. This project will suit someone keen to get into coding and data pipelines. You will be well supported by the team, including a software engineer.

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