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Birdsong and Neurological Conditions: Brain-Path Learnings

Aug 07, 2015 11:10 PM EDT
Zebra finches and other songbirds have a neural area that determines creative or rote songs.
Researchers in a lab in which birdsong has been the 20-year specialty have made a new discovery that might lead later to treatments of human neurological disorders.
(Photo : Courtesy of the Doupe Lab, UCSF)

Sometimes songbirds just have to go, "LalalalalaLAlala!"

Or produce some intricate variation of tweet, different from the ones before. That is, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco recently found a neurological mechanism that could explain the neural pattern that allows songbirds to wax creative and refine and alter their adult songs--rather than always fall back on tried-and-true songs, said a statement.

The scientists' findings could also help explain how we humans learn motor skills from playing a musical instrument to driving a car -- and might even have later implications for treating Parkinson's disease, obsessive disorders and other neurological conditions. Their research was recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

In learning songs, a bird uses a part of its brain equivalent to the human basal ganglia, which is a nest of neural structures at the base of the brain, the statement said.

"This is an incredibly well-conserved circuit - from lampreys to us - which in humans is connected to everything from movement to mood," said lead author Hamish Mehaffey, PhD, of UCSF, in the release. Mehaffey works in the lab of the late Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, who established studies of the birdsong system in 20 years of work at UCSF and passed away in late 2014.

"[Doupe's] recent work had shown that precise patterns of activity arising from the basal ganglia were important for brain plasticity and learning, but we didn't understand what aspects of that patterning were important," said Micahel Brainard, PhD, a UCSF professor, in the release. "The current results demonstrate a mechanism that could explain why these activity patterns matter and reveal the 'rules' that let them alter brain connectivity. This is a key advance."

For instance, when researchers block the basal ganglia, young birds never develop a mature song. The adults no longer can adjust and maintain their song by experience, either, the release said.

The researchers used brain slices of the region where basal ganglia and the song motor pathway inputs meet to control the bird's song performance. Then they electrically stimulated the two pathways, showing that signals' relative timing -- one for "creativity" and one for an established song - can result in synaptic changes that either mean the basal ganglia temporarily leads, or the learned motor plan does, the release said.

Meanwhile, researchers are still working on how to fix the human basal ganglia when it does not work. But this new report adds knowledge, the release noted. 

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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