Dr. Jill Maron, a researcher at the Mother Infant Research Institute and a neonatologist at the Tufts Children's Hospital at Tufts Medical Center, has been studying premature newborns’ difficulties with oral feeding for several years. Recently, her laboratory has been collaborating with Dr. Emily Zimmerman, director of the Speech & Neurodevelopment Lab (SNL) at Northeastern University. Together, they have been examining the role of FOXP2, the first described ‘speech-language’ gene, in the context of neonatal oral feeding. To her knowledge, they are the first group worldwide to do this.
In a small group of premature newborns, Dr. Maron’s team has recently shown that the amount of FOXP2 in neonatal saliva at the time an infant first attempts to orally feed correlates with how long it will take an infant to actually learn to feed. The higher the level of FOXP2 in saliva, the sooner an infant will succeed at feeding.
Many of the same muscles and nerves required for speech are also needed to orally feed successfully. Coordinated oral motor movements are needed for both actions. FOXP2 is well known to be essential for normal speech, and Dr. Zimmerman hypothesized that given their shared mechanical capabilities, FOXP2 would play an equally important role for feeding in the newborn.
Currently there are no treatment strategies to increase expression levels of FOXP2. At this point in their research, Drs. Maron and Zimmerman aim to conduct a larger study to further examine how levels of the gene product in saliva correlate with feeding and speech outcomes. They also have a specific interest in understanding differences in FOXP2 expression between males and females.
Dr. Maron states that this discovery can be very useful to families. “By alerting a parent to the potential of feeding and/or speech problems early on in their infant’s development, we may provide them with the necessary tools and support services to optimize their infant’s outcomes.”