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How Birds Sing

In a new finding with implications to human learning, memory and speech acquisition, researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center have correlated the simple notes and more complex passages of a bird's song to activity in different areas of the brain.

The researchers were able to show for the first time that structures higher up in the brain's chain of command directly control the more abstract information, while the component bits are managed by lower brain centers. The research is reported in today's issue of the journal Science.

Daniel Margoliash, Ph.D., associate professor of organismal biology and anatomy, and Albert Yu, M.D., a graduate student in neurobiology, have provided the most detailed look yet at how the brain controls singing in the zebra finch, which Margoliash calls the "white rat" of songbirds. Neurobiologists have used them extensively to study brain function.

"It doesn't have the most beautiful song," admits Margoliash. "It sounds like a squeaky door. But it's a wonderful system for studying learning and memory, which are central questions in neurobiology," he said. "It's interesting to human biology, because song learning in birds has compelling similarities to speech acquisition."

The research shows that the score for the bird's song takes shape as it gets relayed down a hierarchy of brain structures. The main themes--what the scientists call "syllables" --are composed by the higher structures, but the individual notes get filled in by the lower brain regions. This sort of hierarchical organization of the brain's motor functions had long been supposed by neuroscientists but never demonstrated
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Contact: Bill Burton
bburton@mcis.bsd.uchicago.edu
312-702-6241
University of Chicago Medical Center
27-Sep-1996


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