Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Songbirds reveal how practice improves performance

07.07.2009
MIT research provides new insights about trial-and-error learning

Learning complex skills like playing an instrument requires a sequence of movements that can take years to master. Last year, MIT neuroscientists reported that by studying the chirps of tiny songbirds, they were able to identify how two distinct brain circuits contribute to this type of trial-and-error learning in different stages of life.

Now, the researchers have gained new insights into a specific mechanism behind this learning. In a paper being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of July 6, the scientists report that as zebra finches fine-tune their songs, the brain initially stores improvements in one brain pathway before transferring this learned information to the motor pathway for long-term storage.

The work could further our understanding of the complicated circuitry of the basal ganglia, brain structures that play a key role in learning and habit formation in humans. The basal ganglia are also linked to disorders like Parkinson's disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and drug addiction.

"Birds provide a great system to study the fundamental mechanisms of how the basal ganglia contributes to learning," said senior author Michale Fee, an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "Our results support the idea that the basal ganglia are the gateway through which newly acquired information affects our actions."

Young zebra finches learn to sing by mimicking their fathers, whose song contains multiple syllables in a particular sequence. Like the babbling of human babies, young birds initially produce a disorganized stream of tones, but after practicing thousands of times they master the syllables and rhythms of their father's song. Previous studies with finches have identified two distinct brain circuits that contribute to this behavior. A motor pathway is responsible for producing the song, and a separate pathway is essential for learning to imitate the father. This learning pathway, called the anterior forebrain pathway (AFP), has similarities to basal ganglia circuits in humans.

"For this study, we wanted to know how these two pathways work together as the bird is learning," explained first author Aaron Andalman, a graduate student in Fee's lab. "So we trained the birds to learn a new variation in their song and then we inactivated the AFP circuit to see how it was contributing to the learning."

To train the birds, researchers monitored their singing and delivered white noise whenever a bird sang a particular syllable at a lower pitch than usual.

"The bird hears this unexpected noise, thinks it made a 'mistake', and on future attempts gradually adjusts the pitch of that syllable upward to avoid repeating that error," Fee said. "Over many days we can train the bird to move the pitch of the syllable up and down the musical scale."

On a particular day, after four hours of training in which the birds learned to raise the pitch, the researchers temporarily inactivated the AFP with a short-acting drug (tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that comes from the puffer fish). The pitch immediately slipped back to where it had been at the start of that day's training session — suggesting that the recently learned changes were stored within the AFP.

Listen to the birds adjust the pitch of their song here: http://web.mit.edu/feelab/media/andalmanandfee.html

But the researchers found that over the course of 24 hours, the brain had transferred the newly learned information from the AFP to the motor pathway. The motor pathway was storing all of the accumulated pitch changes from previous training sessions.

Fee compares the effect to how recent edits to a document are temporarily stored in a computer's dynamic memory and then saved regularly to the hard drive. It is the accumulation of changes in the motor pathway "hard drive" that constitutes the development of a new skill.

Jen Hirsch | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.mit.edu
http://web.mit.edu/feelab/media/andalmanandfee.html

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Molecular Force Sensors
20.09.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biochemie

nachricht Foster tadpoles trigger parental instinct in poison frogs
20.09.2017 | Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

Im Focus: Fast, convenient & standardized: New lab innovation for automated tissue engineering & drug

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems Holding GmbH about commercial use of a multi-well tissue plate for automated and reliable tissue engineering & drug testing.

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems...

Im Focus: Silencing bacteria

HZI researchers pave the way for new agents that render hospital pathogens mute

Pathogenic bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics to an ever increasing degree. One of the most difficult germs is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Molecular Force Sensors

20.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Producing electricity during flight

20.09.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

20.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>