European starling. Photo by Daniel Baleckaitis.
Researchers in a University of Chicago lab are peering inside the minds of European starlings to find out how they recognize songs and in the process are providing insights into how the brain learns, recognizes and remembers complex sounds at the cellular level. In a study published in the Aug. 7, 2003, issue of Nature, the researchers show how songs that birds have learned to recognize trigger responses both in individual neurons and in populations of neurons in the bird’s brain.
"We found that cells in a part of the brain are altered dramatically by the learning process," said Daniel Margoliash, Ph.D., professor of organismal biology and anatomy and of psychology, and co-author of the paper. "As birds learn to recognize certain songs, the cells in this area become sensitive to particular sound patterns or auditory objects that occur in the learned songs, while cells never show such sensitivity to patterns in unfamiliar songs. Specific cells in the brain become ‘tuned’ to what the bird is learning."
How the brain perceives and interprets stimuli from the external world are fundamental questions in neuroscience. There are many types of memory systems in the brain. Memories of words, sounds of voices or patterns of music are important components of human daily experience and are essential for normal communication, yet "we know little about how such memories are formed in the brain and how they are retrieved," Margoliash said.
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