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Same brain region handles whistles and words

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10:57am, January 18, 2005

Areas of the brain linked to speech also spring into action when people communicate with each other by whistling, according to a new report. Neural tissue involved in language apparently adapts to a wide range of signaling systems, according to Manuel Carreiras of Spain's University of La Laguna and his colleagues.

Spanish-speaking shepherds on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands off Spain's coast, communicate over long distances and rocky terrain using whistles for specific Spanish vowels and consonants, thus forming whistled words. Their whistled language is called Silbo Gomero.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure blood-flow changes in the brains of three shepherds fluent in Silbo Gomero and three Spanish speakers unfamiliar with the whistled language. Participants listened to words and sentences conveyed both in spoken Spanish and in whistles.

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