Practicing before females improves males' performance

Washington, Feb 26 (ANI): UCSF neuroscientists have discovered that teenage male songbirds, still working to perfect their song, perform better in the presence of a female bird.

The discovery offers insights into how social cues can impact the process of learning, the researchers said, and, specifically, could offer insights into the way humans learn speech and other motor skills.

It also could inform strategies for rehabilitating people with motor disorders or brain injuries.

Like humans, songbirds learn to sing by first listening to adult birds and then mimicking those sounds through a process of trial-and-error. Their initial vocalizations are akin to the babbling of babies.

Until now, scientists and bird watchers alike have thought that young birds could only produce immature song. However, in a process that involved recording and studying male zebra finch song, the scientists discovered that, in the presence of a female, the birds sang much better than when they were practicing their song alone.

"We were very surprised by the finding," said senior author Allison Doupe, a professor of psychiatry and physiology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF.

"The birds picked the best version of the song that they could possibly perform and they sang it over and over again. They sounded almost like adults. It turns out that teenagers know more than they're telling us."

Normally, the young birds' song is quite poor because they are practicing their vocalization through the trial-and-error process, said the first author of the study, Satoshi Kojima, a postdoctoral fellow in the Doupe lab.

"Something must be happening in response to a reinforcing social cue that allows them to pick out and produce their best possible performance. This demonstrates the power of social cues to shape brain behavior."

The finding could lead to a better understanding of the brain mechanisms supporting language acquisition as well as many other learned behaviors, said Doupe.

"We know that variation by trial and error is an important part of the learning process," said Doupe. "But discovering precisely how social cues influence motor production during song learning in birds could shed light on the brain mechanisms that underlie similar processes in humans learning how to speak, and potentially allow scientists and clinicians to harness these mechanisms when learning is not progressing properly."

The study was reported in a recent early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Jan. 10, 2011). (ANI)

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