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Bird song on the brain

August 7, 2003

Familiar tunes can trigger specific nerve cells into action—in starlings at least. The discovery, reported in the August 7, 2003 Nature, sheds light on how the brain is able to identify auditory signals. Timothy Q. Gentner and Daniel Margoliash trained eight adult starlings to tell the difference between up to ten different songs made by other members of their species. They then recorded the activity of single and groups of brain cells as the birds listened to familiar and unfamiliar tunes. Specific cells, located in auditory brain regions, registered the learned melodies. This pattern of activity may help starlings to recognize familiar songs. Previous theories have suggested that auditory ‘objects’ are processed through an interaction between networks of cells that respond specifically to the sound, and lower-level sensory neurons that are tuned to more basic information. Gentner and Margoliash conclude that single neurons and small populations of neurons represent learned auditory objects in the environment, and that their activity is shaped by the animal's behavioural experiences.

Abstract © 2003 Nature

“Neuronal populations and single cells representing learned auditory objects,” Timothy Q. Gentner, Daniel Margoliash, Nature, August 7, 2003

Timothy Q. Gentner and Daniel Margoliash, Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago