Everyday it feels more and more like we’re living in a simulation similar to The Matrix. The latest in strange scientific advancements is about bird brains. Namely, scientists are implanting false memories into birds, to teach them new songs. “But why?”, you may ask. We weren’t totally sure either, but turns out there is a method to what might seem a bit like weird science.
Zebra Finches and human speech
Scientists are implanting false memories into birds to help us gain more of an understanding over human vocal development. Like humans, baby Zebra Finches learn to sing by imitating their parents, but a new study has revealed that they can learn a song without even hearing it.
A team of neuroscientists recently discovered that a kind of memory “inception” can be performed on Zebra Finches, by implanting melodies into the birds using optogenetics. Optogenetics is a method of controlling living tissue with light, and in this case it was used to activate specific neuron circuits in the bird’s brains.
As the scientists pulsed the light tool, they were able to encode false memories of certain melodies into the brains of the birds. The time that certain neurons were kept active directly correlated to the length of the notes in the songs that the birds were then able to sing.
Using animals for scientific research is nothing new. Researchers frequently use animals to study similar physiological traits in humans. In this case the Zebra Finch was found to have similar vocal development to humans, so studying them can help us understand the mechanics of human speech development.
This study is the first of its kind to conclude that certain brain regions encode “behavioural-goal” memories, which helps humans – and certain animals – mimic speech or behaviours. Todd Roberts, a neuroscientist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, said “We’re not teaching the bird everything it needs to know – just the duration of syllables in its song.”
The research also uncovered the fact that if communication between the HVC (high vocal center) and NIF (nucleus interfacialis) regions of the brain were cut off, the bird could still sing the song if they had been taught it before. However if communication between the two regions was cut off before they were taught the song, they could not recall it and would never be able to learn it. Turns out, bird biology is kind of crazy.
Why is this study important?
This study highlights possible limits of human vocal development, as well as correlations between the HVC and NIF regions of the brain. Since the Zebra Finch developments vocal patterns in a very similar manner as humans (mimicking), we can use them to begin to truly understand our own vocal patterns.
Overall, the fact that scientists are implanting false memories into birds isn’t that important, it’s the outcome of that research that is really going to make an impact. Still, science is pretty weird.