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Birdsong and Human Speech: Driven by the Same Genes

Dec 12, 2014 01:26 PM EST
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Researchers have recently discovered that the same genes that help drive the development of human speech also play an important role in the brains of many songbirds - namely those with complex and beautiful songs.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Science, which details how the genes that facilitate vocal learning in birds - that is, the ability to pick up new sounds and imitate songs - reflect the same patterns of activity as seen in humans. Likewise, this activity pattern presents itself completely different in animals incapable of vocal learning.

This was all determined after a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Duke University Medical Center, Curtin University, the RIKEN Brian Science Institute, the Oregon Health and Science University, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science pooled resources and expertise to identify the genes that are likely involved in both human and bird vocal learning.

According to the study, the team analyzed genetic activity - transcriptomes - in the brain tissue of a zebra finch, a budgerigar, and an Anna's hummingbird, representing the three groups of vocal learning birds.

The resulting data was then compared with the genetic maps taken from non-learning birds and primates, as well as six human brains.

Study author Andreas Pfenning told New Scientist that the shared genetic patterning involved in vocal learning goes well beyond just handful of genes.

The team identified 55 genes in all three of the vocal learning birds that behave in the exact same way in human brains.

This means that not only are these genes likely the secret behind complex vocalization, but "there's potential for songbirds to be used to study neurodegeneration - especially conditions like Huntington's," Pfenning explained.

Huntington's is a disease that inhibits complex motor behavior, such as singing and speaking. If certain bird species can serve as adequate test models, experts' understanding of this illness could be significantly improved.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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