Researchers listen to birdsong, unlock mysteries of brain

July 31, 2017
Professors Rick Hyson, Wei Wu, Richard Bertram and Frank Johnson lead a unique interdisciplinary unit at FSU focusing on how electrical brain impulses in a bird translate into a behavior. They say birdsong is a good model to understand how the human brain learns speech. Credit: FSU Photography Services

The term "birdbrain" has been part of our lexicon for about a century to describe someone's intellect, or lack of it, presumably because birds have really small brains. But, in fact, the way songbirds learn to sing is similar to how humans learn speech.

A unique interdisciplinary team of Florida State University researchers is leading the way among scientists worldwide to understand the question of how the male zebra finch learns its songs. Now, with the help of an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, they are moving ahead with research to answer that question.

"Birdsong is a very good model for us to understand how the human brain works in terms of vocalization and how we learn speech," said Wei Wu, associate professor of statistics. "It's a perfect model."

The research team is figuring out how that model works. They are decoding how electrical impulses surge across neural networks, just like an electrical circuit, and translate into behavior such as birdsong or possibly a person's speech.

"If you can understand how a bird's brain can learn, then you can start to understand what goes wrong when people or animals have difficulty learning something," said FSU Professor of Psychology Rick Hyson. "You can't fix something unless you know how it works."

Few research universities in the world host a comparable collection of brainpower cracking the neural code to vocal learning. Hyson is an electrophysiologist, Wu delivers expertise in statistics and data visualization, Richard Bertram is a biomathematician and Frank Johnson is a neuroanatomist and behavior specialist. They are joined by graduate students in FSU's neuroscience and biomathematics programs.

"If we were at different places, we wouldn't be doing this research," said Johnson, professor of psychology and director of FSU's Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience. "If you look across the world of neuroscience, there are lots of people churning out data. But very few groups take the next step of converting that data into the language of mathematics where it actually becomes something you can do things with."

Bertram speaks that language fluently as he uses math to construct a virtual world of the brain. The team gathers pieces of data from experiments and loads those disparate facts into Bertram's mathematical models. The equations help reveal how those pieces work together across the whole brain, making it possible for a bird to sing a song.

"There are so many neurons interacting with each other, billions of them, and it's a real mess to disentangle," Bertram said. "We have to make that huge jump from a single neuron up to the behavior and using mathematical models helps bridge the two."

Their research has led them on a fascinating journey into the infinitesimal universe of neuron cells. Hyson, as the group's electrophysiologist, has the intriguing job of recording racing across a single neuron: How do ions flow in and out of the cell, how fast are they moving, how is the constellation of cells interconnected.

The team is making progress on understanding mysteries of the brain. Their research has helped identify the location in the brain that stores the actual memory of a song, and they've gained insights into how neural networks cause certain behaviors. But even after years of study and breakthroughs, there's still a lot of work to do.

"We found out where to look," Hyson said, but inevitably another question arises. "We think we get an answer, but suddenly we're saying, 'Now we gotta figure out other questions than where to look.'"

Their research journey is illuminating the path to understanding how the finch's brain learns and how learning itself can rewire across several important nodes, all of which have specific counterparts in the human brain.

"The most fascinating thing about the brain is its capacity to change," Hyson said. "We've learned from this project how a can learn new things. Then, eventually, maybe you can better understand some human disabilities. That would be one tangible outcome, if we dream about possibilities."

Their research also offers invaluable opportunities for graduate students.

"Our students get such broad training," Hyson said. "Typically, students work with one faculty member, but our students learn from all of us. They come out of the program extremely well trained."

The student training, Johnson added, prepares the next generation of scientists to advance this research.

"When I teach students, then they know what I know. To go forward, the new generation must actually be better. I'm proud to say many of them are not just better; they're way better. Scientific progress only works if each successive generation is better."

Explore further: Researchers ID network of neurons crucial for vocal learning

Related Stories

Researchers ID network of neurons crucial for vocal learning

June 27, 2017
Researchers have identified a network of neurons that plays a vital role in learning vocalizations by aiding communication between motor and auditory regions of the brain.

White House funds songbird study to unlock mystery of vocal learning

March 14, 2017
A young songbird sings an intricate melody from its caged perch, trying to echo the mating song heard so many times from his father.

Deconstructing motor skills: Separate aspects of development highlighted in study

September 30, 2013
Hitting the perfect tennis serve requires hours and hours of practice, but for scientists who study complex motor behaviors, there always has been a large unanswered question—what is the brain learning from those hours ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover spinal cord neurons that inhibit distracting input to focus on task at hand

December 8, 2017
We think of our brain as masterminding all of our actions, but a surprising amount of information related to movement gets processed by our spinal cord.

The mysterious case of the boy missing most of his visual cortex who can see anyway

December 8, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with Monash University recently gave a presentation at a neuroscience conference in Australia outlining their study of the brain of a seven-year-old boy who was missing most of his ...

How a seahorse-shaped brain structure may help us recognize others

December 8, 2017
How do we recognize others? How do we know friend from foe, threat from reward? How does the brain compute the multitude of cues telling us that Susan is not Erica even though they look alike? The complexity of social interactions—human ...

Brain networks that help babies learn to walk ID'd

December 8, 2017
Scientists have identified brain networks involved in a baby's learning to walk—a discovery that eventually may help predict whether infants are at risk for autism.

Why we can't always stop what we've started

December 7, 2017
When we try to stop a body movement at the last second, perhaps to keep ourselves from stepping on what we just realized was ice, we can't always do it—and Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists have figured out why.

Mutations in neurons accumulate as we age: The process may explain normal cognitive decline and neurodegeneration

December 7, 2017
Scientists have wondered whether somatic (non-inherited) mutations play a role in aging and brain degeneration, but until recently there was no good technology to test this idea. A study published online today in Science, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.