The finding could lead to a better understanding of the brain mechanisms supporting language acquisition as well as many other learned behaviors, said Doupe.
"We know that variation by trial and error is an important part of the learning process," said Doupe. "But discovering precisely how social cues influence motor production during song learning in birds could shed light on the brain mechanisms that underlie similar processes in humans learning how to speak, and potentially allow scientists and clinicians to harness these mechanisms when learning is not progressing properly."
Social cues are well known to powerfully influence the processing and production of human speech. A 2003 study by Michael Goldstein and colleagues showed that, in the presence of their mothers, babies' babbling improves. The current study underscores the usefulness of songbirds as a model for understanding the brain mechanisms underlying social modulation of language learning and other motor skills.
Like other songbirds, when they are fully adult, zebra finches sing two types of tunes: undirected, which they sing when alone, and directed, which is slightly more precise, and is favored by females. Adolescent male songbirds, which are just becoming sexually mature, usually sing undirected song, which at that stage is highly variable and immature and sounds like vocal practice.
In their study, the UCSF scientists coaxed the adolescent males to sing directed, courtship song towards females, and analyzed these songs using quantitative computer software. In the undirected context, the birds' song was variable, with low similarity to their final recorded adult song. In the directed context, the song was similar in syllable structure and sequence to that of the adult song.
The finding points to the importance of trial and error in motor learning a
|Contact: Jennifer O'Brien|
University of California - San Francisco