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What songbirds tell us about how we learn
Date:4/8/2014

This news release is available in French.

When you throw a wild pitch or sing a flat note, it could be that your basal ganglia made you do it. This area in the middle of the brain is involved in motor control and learning. And one reason for that errant toss or off-key note may be that your brain prompted you to vary your behavior to help you learn, from trial-and-error, to perform better.

But how does the brain do this, how does it cause you to vary your behavior?

Along with researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research and Duke University, Professor Woolley investigated this question in songbirds, which learn their songs during development in a manner similar to how humans learn to speak. In particular, songbirds memorize the song of their father or tutor, then practice that song until they can produce a similar song.

"As adults, they continue to produce this learned song, but what's interesting is that they keep it just a little bit variable" says Woolley. "The variability isn't a default, it isn't that they can't produce a better version, they can -- in particular when they sing to a female. So when they sing alone and their song is variable it's because they are actively making it that way."

The team used this change in the variability of the song to look at how the activity of single cells in different parts of the brain altered their activity depending on the social environment.

"We found that the social modulation of variability emerged within the basal ganglia, a brain area known to be important for learning and producing movements not only in birds but also in mammals, including humans" says Woolley. "This indicates that one way that the basal ganglia m
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Contact: Cynthia Lee
cynthia.lee@mcgill.ca
514-398-6754
McGill University
Source:Eurekalert  

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