Previous work by study leader Eric Knudsen, PhD, professor and chair of neurobiology, showed that young owls could quickly pick up new skills that leave older owls baffled. What's more, once the young owls learn a new skill they can easily pick it back up as an adult.
"This work shows the importance of investing in childhood experiences," said Knudsen, who also holds the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professorship. "Early learning can have long lasting effects on the architecture of the brain."
Knudsen's new work, published Dec. 19 in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, relies on a well-understood region of an owl's brain. This area creates a spatial map out of the sounds an owl hears, such as the squeaking of a mouse or some rustling in the leaves. The owl then uses that map to know precisely where to hunt for dinner.
In his work, Knudsen and graduate student Brie Linkenhoker put glasses on the owls that shift the world to one side. When the owl first peers through the new specs, a squeaking mouse located off to the side appears to be straight ahead. This confuses the owl and allows its prey to escape.
The hungry owl solves this problem by learning a new auditory map that matches the shifted visual map. It then uses this new map to successfully capture its prey. When Knudsen removes the glasses the owls shift back to the original map of the world. After the human equivalent of many years, those educated owls can once again adjust to the same world-shifting glasses from which they learned as juveniles.