Learning new songs

New research shows that premotor neurons are activated in the brains of adolescent male zebra finches whenever a young bird hears their father (a tutor) sing. These are the same neurons that are usually activated in anticipation of movement. What is special about this, is that as the birds learned new songs or pieces of new songs, activation of these neurons declined. This effect was due to inhibitory interneurons whose firing frequency increased as the birds practiced and improved their accuracy. Activation of these inhibitory interneurons prevented any further changes to the circuitry once a song, or pieces of a song, was learned. In a quote from the New York Times, study author Dr. Michael Long (New York University, Langone) said, “These inhibitory cells are really smart — once you’ve gotten a part of the song down, the area gets locked.” Although the neurons ignore the father once the birds reach sexual maturity, unlike human adolescents the birds remember everything he had to say.

Dr. Long also stated in a quote from Science Daily, “While we have known for decades that adolescent songbirds only learn their songs if exposed to a tutor, we believe our study is the first to detail changes in nerve networks that make this mastery possible in maturing brains.”

Here is a video from the NY Times showing an adolescent male learning to sing from a “tutor”:


D. Vallentin, G. Kosche, D. Lipkind, M. A. Long. Inhibition protects acquired song segments during vocal learning in zebra finches. Science, 2016; 351 (6270): 267 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad3023

Science Daily

Video from: New York Times