Mandarins learned the new song without the help of their parents – traditionally their first singing teachers.
By Guilherme Eler
Oct 4, 2019, 8:07 pm
For mandarins, nice little birds like the one you pictured above, singing is a habit that spans generations – and requires a great deal of effort. The youngest in the family learn the typical song of the species by memorizing the way their parents do. Then they mumble the notes and try to copy them slowly, according to this 2008 study. By repeating the melody so much, they are finally able to adjust the pitch and faithfully reproduce the show of their parents. It is estimated that puppies will become cool about 3 months after the first "class".
After a thorough study of this learning process, researchers at the University of Southwest Texas, in the United States, were able to manipulate these steps and implant vocal memories in the mandarin's brain. And that taught them to sing their traditional song in a new way – without needing the mentoring of their bird parents.
"We confirm for the first time that there are brain regions responsible for behavioral memories – memories that guide us when we want to mimic anything from speech to learning to play the piano," said Todd Roberts, neuroscientist and co-author of the study, in statement. "These discoveries allowed us to plant memories in birds and to control the learning of their song."
A published study in the science journal Science explains how scientists activated a specific circuit of bird neurons using optogenetics. This technique uses light to activate certain parts of the brain and control its activity.
The focus of this technique was a brain area called NIf. By adding light-sensitive genes to neurons in these areas, scientists were able to control the information the region transmits to HVC – another part of the bird's brain. While the IFN activity determines the size of the syllables (or notes) of the song, the other brain region is responsible for learning.
The lower the exposure to light, the smaller the syllables (or notes) that birds would use to sing. Lighting the brain areas longer, on the other hand, made the song have longer notes. And that gave rise to a whole new song.
By manipulating the interaction of these two areas, it was as if scientists scientists created new memories in puppies. But that didn't mean passing on the full cake recipe: aspects like the intensity and tone of the singing still needed to be factory installed. "We don't teach everything the bird needs to know – just the syllable length of the song," said Roberts. "The two brain regions we tested in the study represent only one piece of the puzzle." That is, even though technology lends a helping hand, having a good teacher from the nest still made all the difference.
The team states in the study that the discovery of the relationship between memory and song in birds may pave the way for treating certain speech problems in people. There is, of course, a very long way to go, since relationships between different parts of the human brain are often much more complex than birds.