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Mirror Neurons Involved in Vocal Learning in Birds

January 17, 2008

Neurons in the songbird brain that monitor matches between sung and heard songs are reported in an article in the January 17, 2008 Nature. So-called mirror neurons are active in primates when performing or observing specific hand gestures and are thought to be an important basis for brain mechanisms of communication, but, until now, they have not been reported for vocal communication.

Richard Mooney and colleagues identify a certain class of neuron in the Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) forebrain that has similar responses when the bird sings a series of notes, and when it hears a similar sequence sung by another bird. These neurons are connected to structures important for learning, and the authors believe that singing-related activity in these cells could help guide vocal learning. They conclude that similar mirror neurons could be involved in rapid decoding and encoding of speech in humans.

Abstract © 2008, Nature

“Precise auditory–vocal mirroring in neurons for learned vocal communication,” J. F. Prather, S. Peters, S. Nowicki, R. Mooney, January 17, 2007, Nature

Richard Mooney, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC