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Singing in the Brain: Uncovering the Neural Patterns Birds Use to Learn Songs

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MIT neuroscientists have now uncovered the brain activity that supports this learning process. Sequences of neural activity that encode the birds’ first song syllable are duplicated and altered slightly, allowing the birds to produce several variations on the original syllable.

Eventually these syllables are strung together into the bird’s signature song, which remains constant for life.

“The advantage here is that in order to learn new syllables, you don’t have to learn them from scratch. You can reuse what you’ve learned and modify it slightly. We think it’s an efficient way to learn various types of syllables,” says Tatsuo Okubo, a former MIT graduate student and lead author of the study, which appears in the Nov. 30 online edition of Nature.

Okubo and his colleagues believe that this type of neural sequence duplication may also underlie other types of motor learning. For example, the sequence used to swing a tennis racket might be repurposed for a similar motion such as playing Ping-Pong. “This seems like a way that sequences might be learned and reused for anything that involves timing,” says Emily Mackevicius, an MIT graduate student who is also an author of the paper.

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