CHAMPAIGN, Ill. When a zebra finch hears a new song from a member of its own species, the experience changes gene expression in its brain in unexpected ways, researchers report. The sequential switching on and off of thousands of genes after a bird hears a new tune offers a new picture of memory in the songbird brain.
The finding, detailed this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was a surprise, said principal investigator David Clayton, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Illinois. He and his colleagues had not expected to see so many genes involved, and thought that any changes in gene activity after a bird heard a new song would quickly dissipate.
The new experiments uncovered three distinct profiles of gene expression in the brain. One is typical of a bird sitting alone in silence. A second profile appears quickly just after a bird hears a recorded song but only if the song is new to the bird. A third profile then emerges 24 hours later, after the song has become familiar.
"I can tell you whether the bird has heard a particular song before or not just by looking at the molecular assay," Clayton said.
In the study, each bird was kept in quiet isolation overnight before it heard a recording of a new song. The recording was then repeated every 10 seconds for up to three hours.
"The most important thing in its whole life is the sound of another bird of its species singing," Clayton said.
"And what we found is that 24 hours after the experience its brain is still trying to make sense of what it heard."
The new study took a broad snapshot of gene activity in the brain. Using DNA microarray analysis, the researchers measured changes in levels of messenger RNAs in the auditory forebrain of finches exposed to a new song. These mRNAs are templates that allow the cell to translate individual genes into the proteins that do the work of the ce
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign