Songbirds use mental pointer when playing tunes

That spontaneous serenade from the zebra finch is not only more rehearsed than cellist Yo-Yo Ma's chamber music, but the bird even keeps its "finger" on its mental sheet music both day and night.

In a National Science Foundation (NSF) supported study at Lucent Technology's Bell Laboratories, researchers have discovered that signals serving as "mental pointers" are produced in the brains of zebra finches while they sing, and also while they dream about, or "rehearse," their song during sleep.

This long-term, fundamental neural research is helping scientists understand brain mechanisms and, specifically, how the brain produces signals for motor control and learning. By studying how songbirds learn their songs, scientists hope to understand how humans learn to speak.

The finch's brain "circuits" are similar to the parts of the human brain that handle motor control and learning despite the obvious size difference.

The findings were published Sept. 5 in the journal Nature.

Zebra finches have only one song that lasts about a second. At one month old, a finch first tries to sing a song that it memorized while listening to its father sing. While awake, it continues to practice singing thousands of times a day. Then it also mentally rehearses while asleep, as discovered in a different study. The finch can repeat the song perfectly after about two months practice.

Dr. Michale Fee of the lab's Biological Computation Research Department found that a finch uses individual neural signals lasting 6/1000 of a second to mark its place as it sings. "I hate to use the 'follow the bouncing ball' example, but that's basically what it is," said Fee.

"Knowledge of timing cues such as those used by the songbirds may give us insight into how humans learn chunks of material through patterns and sequences," said Christopher Platt, a program director with the National Science Foundation's neuroscience program. "There seem to be a lot of paralle

Contact: Manny Van Pelt
National Science Foundation

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