Born to cry: A genetic dissection of infant vocalization

David George Ashbrook, Snigdha Roy, Brittany G. Clifford, Tobias Riede, Maria Luisa Scattoni, Detlef H. Heck, Lu Lu, Robert W. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Infant vocalizations are one of the most fundamental and innate forms of behavior throughout avian and mammalian orders. They have a critical role in motivating parental care and contribute significantly to fitness and reproductive success. Dysregulation of these vocalizations has been reported to predict risk of central nervous system pathologies such as hypoxia, meningitis, or autism spectrum disorder. Here, we have used the expanded BXD family of mice, and a diallel cross between DBA/2J and C57BL/6J parental strains, to begin the process of genetically dissecting the numerous facets of infant vocalizations. We calculate heritability, estimate the role of parent-of-origin effects, and identify novel quantitative trait loci (QTLs) that control ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) on postnatal days 7, 8, and 9; a stage that closely matches human infants at birth. Heritability estimates for the number and frequency of calls are low, suggesting that these traits are under high selective pressure. In contrast, duration and amplitude of calls have higher heritabilities, indicating lower selection, or their importance for kin recognition. We find suggestive evidence that amplitude of infant calls is dependent on the maternal genotype, independent of shared genetic variants. Finally, we identify two loci on Chrs 2 and 14 influencing call frequency, and a third locus on Chr 8 influencing the amplitude of vocalizations. All three loci contain strong candidate genes that merit further analysis. Understanding the genetic control of infant vocalizations is not just important for understanding the evolution of parent–offspring interactions, but also in understanding the earliest innate behaviors, the development of parent–offspring relations, and the early identification of behavioral abnormalities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number250
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - Oct 29 2018


  • BXD
  • Crying
  • Genetic dissection
  • Heritability
  • Infant ultrasonic vocalizations
  • Parent-of-origin effects
  • Quantitative trait loci
  • USV

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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