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Male zebra finches learn their courtship songs from their fathers. Now, a new study details the precise changes in brain circuitry that occur during that process. As a young male listens to his father’s song, networks of brain cells are activated that the younger bird will use later to sing the song himself, researchers have found. As the learning process occurs, inhibitory cells suppress further activity in the area and help sculpt the song into a permanent memory.
“These inhibitory cells are really smart – once you’ve gotten a part of the song down, the area gets locked,” said Michael Long, a neuroscientist at NYU Langone Medical Center and an author of the new study, which appears in the journal Science.
Zebra finches learn their courtship song from their fathers and reach sexual maturity in about 100 days. At this point, they ignore their fathers’ tutoring altogether, Dr. Long said.
In their study, he and his colleagues played recorded courtship songs to young and old birds and monitored neural activity in their brains. In sexually mature birds, the courtship song did not elicit any neural response. Understanding the role of the inhibitory cells in the brain could help researchers develop ways to manipulate this network, Dr. Long said.
“Maybe we could teach old birds new tricks,” he said. “And extrapolating widely, maybe we could even do this in mammals, maybe even humans, and enrich learning.”