Monday, November 8, 2010

Albatross to Zebra Finch - Alphabet of the Birds

Penn State zebra finch study 

Review: A study out of Penn State University has observed how the zebra finch's brain strings together sets of syllables in its song.  Researchers were able to determine a specific group of neurons that fire in sequence and determine the order and timing of different syllables that make up the syntax of its distinctive song.  Specific neurons were observed firing at the precise moment that a syllable was sung setting off a cascading effect in other neurons.  One researcher likened the sets of neurons to sections of a musical score. When this group of neurons is absent the birds were unable to sing.  Dezhe Jin, an assistant professor at Penn State and one of the study's authors believes findings may provide insight into how the human brain learns language.  Unlike many other animals songbirds learn though cultural transmission in much the same way as humans do.   Since the zebra finch only perfects one song during it's lifetime, it was a simple model to start with.  Future study will focus on studying other songbirds that have a larger repertoire of songs. 

Reflection: This is an interesting starting point for researchers to embark on language study.  Since the zebra finch's song is so simple they were actually able to pinpoint the precise location of each syllable of the song.  It will be interesting in the future to see if other songbirds' brains work similarly when using bits and pieces of different syllables in more complex songs.  Relating this to human speech at this point seems to be a big stretch.   It is possible that there is a specific collection of neurons responsible for each individual syllable that we use in language, however the process in the human brain of ordering how those groups of neurons fire is likely a much more complex and undefinable process than in songbirds.  The words that we choose to use, and the meanings that those words take on are very complicated and likely slightly different for each individual person.  It would be interesting though to see this research lead to the discovery of a precise area of the human brain, perhaps somewhere in the primary motor cortex, that corresponds to individual syllables in speech. 

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