Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Tweeting teenage songbirds reveal impact of social cues on learning

28.02.2011
In a finding that once again displays the power of the female, UCSF neuroscientists have discovered that teenage male songbirds, still working to perfect their song, improve their performance in the presence of a female bird.

The finding sheds light on how social cues can impact the process of learning, the researchers said, and, specifically, could offer insights into the way humans learn speech and other motor skills. It also could inform strategies for rehabilitating people with motor disorders or brain injuries.

The study was reported in a recent early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Jan. 10, 2011).

Like humans, songbirds learn to sing by first listening to adult birds and then mimicking those sounds through a process of trial-and-error. Their initial vocalizations are akin to the babbling of babies.

Until now, scientists and bird watchers alike have thought that young birds could only produce immature song. However, in a process that involved recording and studying male zebra finch song, the scientists discovered that, in the presence of a female, the birds sang much better than when they were practicing their song alone.

"We were very surprised by the finding," said senior author Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and physiology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF. "The birds picked the best version of the song that they could possibly perform and they sang it over and over again. They sounded almost like adults. It turns out that teenagers know more than they're telling us."

Normally, the young birds' song is quite poor because they are practicing their vocalization through the trial-and-error process, said the first author of the study, Satoshi Kojima, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Doupe lab. "Something must be happening in response to a reinforcing social cue that allows them to pick out and produce their best possible performance. This demonstrates the power of social cues to shape brain behavior."

The finding could lead to a better understanding of the brain mechanisms supporting language acquisition as well as many other learned behaviors, said Doupe.

"We know that variation by trial and error is an important part of the learning process," said Doupe. "But discovering precisely how social cues influence motor production during song learning in birds could shed light on the brain mechanisms that underlie similar processes in humans learning how to speak, and potentially allow scientists and clinicians to harness these mechanisms when learning is not progressing properly."

Social cues are well known to powerfully influence the processing and production of human speech. A 2003 study by Michael Goldstein and colleagues showed that, in the presence of their mothers, babies' babbling improves. The current study underscores the usefulness of songbirds as a model for understanding the brain mechanisms underlying social modulation of language learning and other motor skills.

Like other songbirds, when they are fully adult, zebra finches sing two types of tunes: undirected, which they sing when alone, and directed, which is slightly more precise, and is favored by females. Adolescent male songbirds, which are just becoming sexually mature, usually sing undirected song, which at that stage is highly variable and immature and sounds like vocal practice.

In their study, the UCSF scientists coaxed the adolescent males to sing directed, courtship song towards females, and analyzed these songs using quantitative computer software. In the undirected context, the birds' song was variable, with low similarity to their final recorded adult song. In the directed context, the song was similar in syllable structure and sequence to that of the adult song.

The finding points to the importance of trial and error in motor learning as a means of perfecting vocalizations, said Doupe. "In the process of learning song, birds must develop their motor neurons to effectively mimic what they've heard. The variability that characterizes the imperfect youthful song of teenage birds is generated by basal ganglia circuits, and it's what allows birds to experiment to find what works best.

"Our finding suggests that, though teenage birds have the ability to produce more complex songs, they are only able to do so on a social cue. "It's possible that the social cue somehow turns off the variability that is responsible for improving vocal learning," she said.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

Jennifer O'Brien | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ucsf.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Newly designed molecule binds nitrogen
23.02.2018 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

nachricht Atomic Design by Water
23.02.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung GmbH

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Attoseconds break into atomic interior

A newly developed laser technology has enabled physicists in the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (jointly run by LMU Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics) to generate attosecond bursts of high-energy photons of unprecedented intensity. This has made it possible to observe the interaction of multiple photons in a single such pulse with electrons in the inner orbital shell of an atom.

In order to observe the ultrafast electron motion in the inner shells of atoms with short light pulses, the pulses must not only be ultrashort, but very...

Im Focus: Good vibrations feel the force

A group of researchers led by Andrea Cavalleri at the Max Planck Institute for Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) in Hamburg has demonstrated a new method enabling precise measurements of the interatomic forces that hold crystalline solids together. The paper Probing the Interatomic Potential of Solids by Strong-Field Nonlinear Phononics, published online in Nature, explains how a terahertz-frequency laser pulse can drive very large deformations of the crystal.

By measuring the highly unusual atomic trajectories under extreme electromagnetic transients, the MPSD group could reconstruct how rigid the atomic bonds are...

Im Focus: Developing reliable quantum computers

International research team makes important step on the path to solving certification problems

Quantum computers may one day solve algorithmic problems which even the biggest supercomputers today can’t manage. But how do you test a quantum computer to...

Im Focus: In best circles: First integrated circuit from self-assembled polymer

For the first time, a team of researchers at the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, has succeeded in making an integrated circuit (IC) from just a monolayer of a semiconducting polymer via a bottom-up, self-assembly approach.

In the self-assembly process, the semiconducting polymer arranges itself into an ordered monolayer in a transistor. The transistors are binary switches used...

Im Focus: Demonstration of a single molecule piezoelectric effect

Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale

Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

2nd International Conference on High Temperature Shape Memory Alloys (HTSMAs)

15.02.2018 | Event News

Aachen DC Grid Summit 2018

13.02.2018 | Event News

How Global Climate Policy Can Learn from the Energy Transition

12.02.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Basque researchers turn light upside down

23.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Finnish research group discovers a new immune system regulator

23.02.2018 | Health and Medicine

Attoseconds break into atomic interior

23.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>