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Tweeting teenage songbirds reveal impact of social cues on learning
Date:2/25/2011

In a finding that once again displays the power of the female, UCSF neuroscientists have discovered that teenage male songbirds, still working to perfect their song, improve their performance in the presence of a female bird.

The finding sheds light on how social cues can impact the process of learning, the researchers said, and, specifically, could offer insights into the way humans learn speech and other motor skills. It also could inform strategies for rehabilitating people with motor disorders or brain injuries.

The study was reported in a recent early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Jan. 10, 2011).

Like humans, songbirds learn to sing by first listening to adult birds and then mimicking those sounds through a process of trial-and-error. Their initial vocalizations are akin to the babbling of babies.

Until now, scientists and bird watchers alike have thought that young birds could only produce immature song. However, in a process that involved recording and studying male zebra finch song, the scientists discovered that, in the presence of a female, the birds sang much better than when they were practicing their song alone.

"We were very surprised by the finding," said senior author Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and physiology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF. "The birds picked the best version of the song that they could possibly perform and they sang it over and over again. They sounded almost like adults. It turns out that teenagers know more than they're telling us."

Normally, the young birds' song is quite poor because they are practicing their vocalization through the trial-and-error process, said the first author of the study, Satoshi Kojima, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Doupe lab. "Something must be happening in response to a reinforcing social cue that allows them to pick out and produce the
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Contact: Jennifer O'Brien
jennifer.obrien@ucsf.edu
415-502-6397
University of California - San Francisco
Source:Eurekalert

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