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Neuroscientists Reveal How Adolescent Birds Memorize Songs Sung By Their Father

Jan 15, 2016 06:33 PM EST
Zebra Finches
Zebra finches spend their adolescent years memorizing their father's songs so they can someday sing all on their own.
(Photo : Flickr: Jim Bendon)

Scientists have known for some time now that birds ultimately learn their tunes by observing their father's courtship calls. However, neuroscientists from New York University's Langone Medical Center explored this behavior a little further and identified the precise brain circuitry changes that occur when young zebra finches mature and know the songs on their own.  

In the latest study, researchers used electrodes to monitor the brain cell activity in young zebra finches as they learned songs from a mentoring parent over the course of several weeks. Zebra finches tend to learn songs during their adolescence, which starts a month after birth and lasts roughly 100 days. During this time the birds were seen practicing their songs numerous times, according to a news release.

"Our results show that finch song learning reflects a 'dance' inside the brain's vocal control center between nerve cells that capture information as the bird listens and those that direct muscle movement as it sings," Michael Long, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of neuroscience at NYU, explained in the release.

The brain cell networks involved in listening to a father's song are the same networks that are later used to sing the song once it has been learned, researchers say. The birds are able to memorize individual notes of a father's song thanks to a specialized set of nerve cells in the brain known as inhibitory interneurons. These cells work by suppressing the impact of learned notes, so that birds can focus on those they have yet to memorize.

"Our research advances the understanding of how skilled behaviors are learned, and the role played by sensory inhibition in making memorized patterns permanent," Long said in NYU's release, adding that their findings could apply to complex behaviors in people, such as dancing or hitting a baseball.

As notes are learned, the impact a parent's song had on the adolescent's maturing brain gradually decreased, and that fast learners had faster brain changes. 

Next, researchers plan to investigate how inhibitory interneurons "tell the difference" between songbird notes that have been memorized and those that are still being learned. They hope their work could someday be used to help humans re-learn skills, such as speech, after suffering from a brain injury.

Their study was recently published in the journal Science.

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