A new study is investigating the mechanisms by which birds learn to sing. Using light signals, researchers have successfully taught birds new songs.
In birds, singing is a crucial function for survival. This ability, possessed by our feathered friends and which provides us with so much charm on our walks in nature, is passed on by parents and adult counterparts. But a recent experiment has allowed birds to produce songs that they had never themselves heard before.
By taking a closer look at the mechanism of how birds learn, researchers discovered that it is possible to precisely activate certain neurones in these animals in order to teach them new songs.
To carry out this experiment, the researchers used optogenetics, a new technique that makes certain neurones receptive to light in order to influence certain areas of the brain without impacting others. Since neurones are activated by light, the duration of each signal, therefore, corresponds to the length of a note.
Doctor Todd Roberts with one of his birds - University Southwestern Medical Center
The results of this experiment allowed the researchers to identify a neural gateway involved in the ability to learn how to sing. It connects two brain regions involved in the animal's motor and sensory functions: the upper vocal centre and the interfacial nucleus.
However, the experiment remains limited, as the stimuli provided by the researchers only influenced the duration of the birds' notes, and not the notes themselves. To achieve this, researchers will have to find the relevant neural networks.