Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Name that tune: How birds learn to recognize song

07.08.2003


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.



Bird songs have captured the interest of humans for ages. "Birders can often recognize many species of birds by only their songs," he said.

For the birds themselves, however, song recognition is no casual business. The ability to match a singer to a song, often down to the level of an individual bird, can mean the difference between "a day spent wrestling through the thicket and one spent enjoying a sun-soaked perch, or the missed chance at mating with the healthiest partner around."

Lead investigator of the study Timothy Gentner, Ph.D., a research associate in the department of organismal biology and anatomy, has tapped into the recognition abilities of songbirds by training birds in the lab to recognize songs. The birds were taught to press different buttons on a small metal panel depending on the song they heard. The researchers rewarded correct responses with food and turned the lights off to convey an incorrect response.

Gentner’s earlier research has shown that European starlings learn to recognize different songs by the individual pieces that comprise each song.

"If you listen closely to a singing starling, you’ll hear that the song is really composed of much shorter sounds," Gentner said. "We call these sounds ‘motifs,’ and to produce a song, the bird will sing the same motif a few times, then switch to a new repeated motif, and then another, as long as he can keep it going. When male starlings sing, they might use only half of the motifs they know and then mix up the motifs when they sing another song."

Given this highly variable motif structure, when other starlings are learning which songs belong to which individuals, they do it by concentrating on the motifs, he said. "Even one or two familiar motifs in an otherwise unfamiliar song is enough to trigger recognition."

To examine the neural mechanisms associated with auditory memory, Gentner and Margoliash measured the electrical impulses from single nerve cells in the auditory area of the bird’s brain known as cmHV -- an area analogous to the higher-order, secondary auditory cortex in humans -- in starlings trained to recognize several songs.

The researchers recorded the response of each neuron to songs the birds had learned to recognize, to unfamiliar songs the birds had never heard before and to synthetic sounds such as white noise. As a population, the cells responded much more strongly to the songs the birds had learned to recognize than to any of the other sounds. Individually, a majority of the cells responded to only one song, and almost all (93 percent) of these cells responded to one of the songs the bird had learned to recognize. After examining the data even more closely, they found that many of these cells only responded to specific motifs in a familiar song.

"The song motifs that drive these cells so strongly are the same components of sounds that control recognition behavior in the birds," Gentner said. "It appears that we are seeing the memory traces for recognition of these complex acoustic patterns. Rather than representing all motifs equally well at any time, we find that experience modifies the brain to highlight those motifs that are the most important to the bird at that time."

"[These motifs] are the books that make up the starlings’ library of memories, and we’re learning how the starling represents those books in his brain," Margoliash said.

"Memories are not permanent," he said. "Do we lose memories because of disuse or because they are crowded out by other memories? Our research shows that the context in which you learn a sound affects how it is memorized. What are the brain mechanisms that control this process of how a memory is laid down?"

Margoliash and Gentner believe these are questions that can be answered in future research with starlings. Neuroscientists, and children learning language, are interested in the answers.

The University of Chicago Medical Center
Office of Public Affairs
5841 South Maryland Avenue -- MC6063
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone 773-702-6241 Fax 773-702-3171

| University of Chicago Hospitals
Further information:
http://www.uchospitals.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth
09.12.2016 | Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

nachricht Plant-based substance boosts eyelash growth
09.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Polymerforschung IAP

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Electron highway inside crystal

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.

Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth

09.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Scientists produce a new roadmap for guiding development & conservation in the Amazon

09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Satellites, airport visibility readings shed light on troops' exposure to air pollution

09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>