A recent study published in the journal Science aimed to figure out how vocal learning and language development occurs in the human brain. The researchers also hoped to find out how autism or other neurological conditions can affect speech. In studies like this, researchers often turn to animals to learn how our bodies work. This is because they have similar physiological traits to humans.
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In this particular study, scientists use zebra finch birds to understand the mechanisms of human speech. The species’ vocal development is quite similar to ours. Usually, they learn to sing a song from their fathers and other adults. Aside from that, previous studies have shown that unhatched baby finches can still process messages sent by their parents from outside the egg. But researchers have attempted to teach zebra finches a song by implanting fake memories in their minds.
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According to All That’s Interesting, a site for curious people who want to know more about what they see on the news or read in history books, this study is the first of its kind to confirm brain regions that encode “behavioral-goal” memories which help humans mimic a certain speech or behavior. The researchers used a method of controlling living tissue with a light called optogenetics. This aims to activate certain neuron circuits in the birds’ brains. After that, they performed real-life memory inception on zebra finches where they encoded “memories” in their brains.
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The tool used in the study served as the parents of the birds, guiding them in memorizing a song without it ever hearing it. In a press statement, neuroscientist Todd Roberts from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center said, “We’re not teaching the birds everything it needs to know – just the duration of syllables in its song.” They found out that if communication between HVC (high vocal center) and NIf (nucleus interfacialis), the two brain regions, were cut off after the bird had learned a song through memory, the bird could still sing it.