Researchers have identified a gene that appears to be responsible for a language disorder that affects up to seven percent of pre-school children. VOA's Jessica Berman reports the gene has also been implicated in more serious conditions.

Most children acquire spoken language almost automatically at a very young age. But about seven percent of all children have some difficulty with speaking or understanding language.

Scientists have identified a gene that appears to play a role in inherited, common speech impairments. The gene has also been associated with more serious conditions, including autism - a mental condition that affects the ability to communicate - and attention hyperactivity disorder.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics at Oxford University discovered the gene called CNTNAP2.

Investigators confirmed the gene's role in a study of 184 families with cases of common speech impairments. The study was published in this week's edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Researcher Karin Stromswold at Rutgers University in New Jersey says that because the defective CNTNAP2 gene is found in children with both simple and severe speech impairments, more than one gene might be involved in speech difficulties.

"The fact that attention deficit disordered children and autistic children have motor delays makes me a little bit worried that what was picked is not a gene that is specific to language, but a gene that affects motor skills [that] is impacting language as well," Stromswold said.

Nonetheless, Stromswold, says she is excited that scientists are starting to discover genes that are responsible for speech impairments.

"It may be a player, at least [in] the actual forming [of] the sounds and the words of language, and that is really exciting," Stromswold said.

Researchers are now trying to learn how the newly discovered CNTNAP2 gene interferes with language development in children.

The Oxford research team was studying another gene, called FOXP2, when they made their discovery. FOXP2 regulates other genes in the brain and has been found to be abnormal in children with severely delayed speech, such as those with autism, but not in children with mild speech impairments.