The team used light pulses to activate a circuit of neutrons in the birds’ brains, in a relatively new process called optogenetics. This allowed the young finches to learn parts of song which they were not taught by their parents.
It is hoped the findings will yield clues on where to look in the human brain to improve our understanding of conditions which affect language like autism.
“The findings enabled us to implant these memories into the birds and guide the learning of their song.”
Roberts added that he and his colleagues did not teach the birds all they needed to know. Instead, they encoded memories into the young birds which taught them syllables of song — the longer the light exposure, the longer the note.
Stressing it was just one piece of the larger puzzle, Roberts said: “If we figure out those other pathways, we could hypothetically teach a bird to sing its song without any interaction from its father. But we’re a long way from being able to do that.”
The two regions of the brain which the research focused on were the nucleus interfacialis (NIf) and the high vocal center (HVC), a key area of the brain in songbirds. The scientists found that the encoded memories were formed in the NIf but were then shared elsewhere.
When communication between the NIf and HVC was shut off prior to the finches being tutored, the birds were not able to copy the song.