Songbirds’ songs ‘may shed light on how humans learn language and speech’

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

LONDON - Understanding how songbirds sing may provide some insight into how the human brain learns language and produces speech.

Dezhe Jin of the Penn State University explained that understanding how birds string together sets of syllables-or notes in a song-may help understanding how the human brain learns to talk.

“Unlike dogs and cats, whose vocalizations are innate and unlearned, sssongbirds learn a song in much the same way as humans learn a language - through cultural transmission,” Nature quoted Jin as saying.

“So we decided to study exactly what is going on - at the level of brain cells - in a songbird called the zebra finch,” said Jin.

Jin explained that both humans and zebra finches arrange sets of learned syllables to communicate.

This arrangement of syllables is known as syntax.

Jin said that, although finch syntax is much less complicated than human syntax, finch syntax couild still provide a model for human speech.

Jin described the area of the brain responsible for a zebra finch’s song production as a clump of neurons, which, if absent, renders the bird incapable of singing.

To determine exactly how this clump is involved in syntactic production, Jin and his colleagues used special electrodes to monitor the brain cells in this neuronal clump.

The electrodes recorded the pattern of neuronal firings that occurred while the finches were repeating a song.

The scientists found that when a zebra finch produces its song, a specific set of neurons in this clump fire at precisely the moment when a particular syllable is being sung.

“We saw that when one syllable was sung, a specific set of neurons in the clump fired, which in turn caused the next set of neurons to fire, and that was associated with the next syllable in the song being sung,” said Jin.

Jin added: “A skilled singer will win the attention of more females, and, as such, he will produce more offspring. It’s not that the song itself varies, just the skill with which it’s sung.” (ANI)

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