Practice as well as sleep may help birds learn new songs
The reorganization of neural activity during sleep helps young songbirds to develop the vocal skills they display while awake, University of Chicago researchers have found.
Sleep is well known to have a role in a broad range of learning processes studied in humans, including acquiring complex skills such as video game playing and learning new speech dialects. However, the neural mechanisms involved in the nighttime consolidation of learning are not well understood. To study this, researchers turned to an animal model system, the developmental learning of song in songbirds, which long has been known to share features with learning speech and language.
Sylvan Shank, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Psychology, and Daniel Margoliash, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and in Psychology, report in this week's issue of Nature that when young zebra finches listen to an adult tutor's song and then practice singing, the activity of premotor neurons in the brain is altered during the following night's sleep. The newly formed pattern of spikes in nighttime activity carries information both about the tutor song and auditory feedback the birds hear while singing. These nighttime changes lead to improvements the young birds' singing that can be observed the following day.
The study, described in the paper, "Sleep and Sensorimotor Integration During Early Vocal Learning in a Songbird," is the first direct observation of the nighttime activity related to vocal learning.
"This study takes big steps forward in finding out how sleep impacts learning," Margoliash said. "We looked at juvenile birds at the first moments of learning. We gained insight into the role of auditory information in structuring sleep activity, which in turn, we speculate interacts with daytime activity to drive vocal learning.
Since the changes occur in the region of the brain that drives si
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University of Chicago