Study: Birdsong learned like speech

Nov. 8, 2010 at 7:28 PM
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., Nov. 8 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say they've observed the brain activity of singing birds and their findings could provide insight into how the human brain produces speech.

Researchers at Penn State University say the way songbirds string together notes into a song could parallel how the human brain learns language and generates speech, a university release said.

"Unlike dogs and cats, whose vocalizations are innate and unlearned, songbirds learn a song in much the same way as humans learn a language -- through cultural transmission," Dezhe Jin, an assistant physics professor, says.

"So we decided to study exactly what is going on -- at the level of brain cells -- in a songbird called the zebra finch."

Both humans and zebra finches arrange sets of learned syllables to communicate, and arrangement known as syntax, Jin said.

Although much less complicated than human syntax, finch syntax can still provide a model for human speech, he said.

Their study found when a zebra finch produces its song, a specific set of neurons fire at precisely the moment when a particular syllable is being sung.

"The result is a kind of domino or cascade effect," Jin said.

The ordered firing of specific sets of neurons can be likened to a musical score, Jim said -- or to speech.

"The sequential bursts of brain-cell activity represent the sequential notes in the same piece of music," he said.

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