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There’s Singing in the Brain

May 5th, 2008. By Dave Oei. 4,034 views.
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Just like babies, juvenile birds babble incessantly and practice their songs before getting it just right.  But how does that transition happen?  Are there two pathways to song (and, possibly speech) development, or just one that matures over time?

The folks at Fee lab at MIT were on the case.

Their subjects: zebra finches.  Which reminds me of why I never pursued an advanced degree in biochemistry.  It wasn’t until the last year of biochemistry, specifically during biochem lab, that we started experimenting with mice.  I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that the vast majority of biochemistry research was done with animals, but it certainly brought the issue to focus right then and there.  And while I commend the people (and lab animals) that operate under long hours with no guarantee of success, I found it’s not something I can do.  Which is why I fell into computing.  And marketing.

But I digress.

Yes, zebra finches.  They’re small, cute, and must be easy to work with.  Because somehow these scientists at MIT were able to disable parts of their brains, only temporarily mind you!, to discover that there existed two pathways toward song development.  Rather than a single pathway that slowly matured with age, there were two, and the adult-controlled motor cortex simply took over the other once the babble turned into a finely crafted song.  But for these birds, it appears that one song’s all they ever really need.

Interestingly, once the finch’s motor cortex took over, the song then never changed or varied.  Which implies an inability to learn.  But with the motor cortex temporarily disabled in adults, the juvenile pathway kicks in and the babbling returns.  Which marks a great difference between birds an us – we for the most part can continue to learn and adapt our speech and language over a lifetime.

Source: MIT
Photo: Aaron Andalman at Fee Lab


  1. May 5th, 2008 at 18:59 | #1

    get google alerts when our name appears on the i net. have been following the bird story a little bit. great photo

  2. Dave Oei
    May 5th, 2008 at 19:25 | #2

    Ah, I see you’re related to one of the Fee’s Lab folks. Yes, great photo, I hope he won’t complain too much about me using it. And yes, very interesting story – can’t wait to see what happens next.

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