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Scientists discover how the songbird's brain controls timing during singing
Date:11/8/2010

A team of scientists has observed the activity of nerve cells in a songbird's brain as it is singing a particular song. Dezhe Jin, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at Penn State University and one of the study's authors, explained that understanding how birds string together sets of syllables -- or notes in a song -- may provide some insight into how the human brain learns language and produces speech. The research will be published in the print edition of the journal Nature and is available online.

"Unlike dogs and cats, whose vocalizations are innate and unlearned, songbirds learn a song in much the same way as humans learn a language -- through cultural transmission," Jin said. "So we decided to study exactly what is going on -- at the level of brain cells -- in a songbird called the zebra finch." 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 can 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. "The result is a kind of domino or cascade effect," Jin said. "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 wi
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Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
science@psu.edu
814-863-4682
Penn State
Source:Eurekalert  

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