Scientists Teach Birds How To Sing With Implanted Memories

Scientists are working on teaching Zebra finches their songs without them ever hearing it. The research is being done all in an attempt to gain a greater knowledge on how humans learn to speak, and ultimately improve language learning capabilities for individuals with autism or any other vocalization conditions, according to Live Science Magazine

Zebra finches are like humans in the sense that they learn their language from their parents, for them it’s specifically their fathers. Scientists have developed and executed a way of teaching the birds how to memorize their songs without ever learning it from their parents, or in general. The process, simply put, involves implanting specific memory patterns into the birds brains for them. The purpose of this is so scientists can locate and isolate the specific genetic and neurological paths in the brains to draw connections to humans. 

“This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioral-goal memories — those memories that guide us when we want to imitate anything from speech to learning the piano. The findings enabled us to implant these memories into the birds and guide the learning of their song.” Todd Roberts, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Southwestern O’Donnell Brain Institute, said in a statement.

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Zebra finches were specifically chosen for this study because of their social learning techniques that are similar to that of a baby developing speech patterns. Babies begin to learn language by imitating their parents speech; zebra finches listen to their fathers sing and then gradually begin to mimic the song perfectly as time goes on. What the researchers in this study wanted to accomplish was a manipulation of the parts of the finches brain that are involved in the learning and mimicking of their fathers song and attempt to send messages from an outside source to those parts of the brain to teach them the song without them ever hearing it, according to Living Science. 

“This technique involves using light to control the behavior of photosensitive proteins in neurons, or brain cells, essentially allowing researchers to control when a neuron fires. Using this tool, the researchers were able to alter brain activity in a sensorimotor area known as Nif, which sends information to a specialized songbird brain region called the HVC. This area is involved in both learning and reproducing bird songs. By pulsing light in a rhythm, the researchers were able to encode ‘memories’ in the finches’ brains, such that the birds’ notes would match the duration of the light pulses,” according to Living Science’s coverage of the experiments. 

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The study doesn’t necessarily teach the birds everything they need to know about the song, but it gets fairly close. So far scientists have just been able to teach the birds the duration of the syllables within the song. Other aspects like pitch and full melody involve other parts of the brain that are more complicated to locate and manipulate, however, the experiment is far from over and scientists are hopeful that in the future they can use the data they’ve already collected to further their studies. 

As previously stated this is all in a greater effort to hopefully better understand the brain pathways in humans that control our learned communication. According to the data, the link between the HVC and the Nif regions in the finches are essential for learning to sing, if the pathway linking those two regions was cut before the bird has a chance to learn the song, there’s no chance it will ever be able to learn it. However, if the finches already learned the melody and then the pathway is cut, they still maintain the memory. This is extremely helpful in understanding the human brain, especially in individuals with communication disorders. 

While the human brain’s nerve pathways involving communication are obviously much more complex and vast than that of a finch, the research is still helpful in giving scientists some insight into overall communication brain function. As the experiments continue, researchers hope to teach the finches their full song without ever hearing it, and thus begin a much deeper understanding of vocalization techniques in all living things.