Researchers have been able to teach birds new songs by activating certain neurons in their brains with flashes of light, according to a publication in the journal Science .

According to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) research team, the discovery may lead to new medical treatments for people with speech problems in the future.

To teach the birds new songs, the researchers used a method called optogenetics; a way to observe and manipulate brain activity. The technique has the advantage of being more precise than the use of, for example, electrical stimuli.

The experiment used zebra finch males, who usually get their singing patterns transferred from their father early in childhood.

Make new memories with flashes of light

By activating certain neurons with flashes of light, the researchers were able to implant a memory in the brain of the zebra finch, without the intervention of the father or other birds. The shorter the neurons were exposed to flashes of light, the shorter the syllable of the song the zebra finch was implanted.

"We don't teach the birds everything, but only the length of the syllables in the song," says researcher Todd Roberts in the UTSW press release.

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'Pioneering research'

The research is significant, according to the scientist, because it paves the way for discovering more brain circuits that control speech capacity. It also shows for the first time that such memories can be implanted.

Although the human brain circuits are, according to Roberts, "much more complex than those of a songbird," the team states that the research provides more insight into neurological disorders.

The research team hopes to use the insights to develop treatments for patients with autism, speech problems and other neurological disorders.


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