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Songbird's strategy for changing its tune could inform rehab efforts
Date:1/31/2011

It takes songbirds and baseball pitchers thousands of repetitions a choreography of many muscle movements -- to develop an irresistible trill or a killer slider. Now, scientists have discovered that the male Bengalese finch uses a simple mental computation and an uncanny memory to create its near-perfect mate-catching melody -- a finding that could have implications for rehabilitating people with neuromuscular diseases and injuries.

Young male Bengalese finches practice their boisterous mating song hundreds of times a day, comparing their melody to the songs of their tutors. By the time they are adults, they have zeroed in on a "successful" pitch for each note in their song. But throughout life they continuously monitor their tune, working to maintain it in the face of such factors as aging, hormone levels, muscular injuries, and illness.

In their study, the UCSF neuroscientists explored the way in which the songbirds learn to perfect and maintain their song, a model of how one learns -- and might relearn -- fine motor skills when provided only simple reinforcement signals of success or failure.

In a series of experiments, they exposed the singing birds to a sound they did not like at the precise moment they were uttering a specific note, or syllable. After many exposures, the birds learned to alter the pitch of that syllable to avoid prompting the sound. But it was the way in which they did this that was remarkable.

The finches learned to change the pitch of a single note by computing the average pitch of hundreds of what they perceived as successful performances of that note when they avoided hearing the unpleasant sound. The mental computation required the birds' brains to remember every slight change in pitch of a single syllable sung perhaps 500 times in a day.

"We were very surprised that the brain can direct so complex a behavioral change with such a simple type of computation," said the lead author of the
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Contact: Jennifer O'Brien
jobrien@pubaff.ucsf.edi
415-502-6397
University of California - San Francisco
Source:Eurekalert

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