Birds and babies may seem like very different creatures, but a new study from UT Southwestern Medical Center has uncovered parallels in how both species master language.
Dr. Todd Roberts, who's spearheading the research, explains how a network of neurons in the brains of zebra finches could expand our understanding of how people learn speech.
On comparing birds and babies:
The main reason that we study songbirds, particularly, is because they learn their songs. And this is very similar to the way we learn speech. If you think about what we do every day when we’re communicating with each other, we’re using learned speech patterns that we learned when we were really young. And that’s why people that grew up in China have a different speech pattern than people that grew up in the United States, and people in Texas have a different speech pattern than people that grow up in California. We’re the only primate that learns its vocalizations in this way. In fact, most mammals don’t learn to imitate vocalizations. Birds are one of the few groups of animals that do this.
On studying Zebra finches:
We can take audio files that we record from a bird that we use to tutor young birds in our experiments. Then, we can raise these young birds up, once they form a memory of this song, we can raise the young birds, and we can either manipulate the circuit that we’ve identified or not manipulate it. And then, we can compare, when they’re adults, how well they copy that song. We can compare the similarity between the father’s song, or the tutor’s song, and that young bird’s song once they become an adult and see how closely they match. You can imagine a toddler or an infant practicing how to say “Dad” or “Mommy,” and they don’t do it properly. They learn how to do it properly by listening to themselves speak.
On benefiting humans with disorders:
This is providing new fundamental insights into how the motor system and the auditory system talk to each other during development [and] are engaged in speech learning, or vocal learning, in songbirds. And hopefully, this will have an impact on where to look in the brain in humans and when to start targeting therapies for neurodevelopmental disorders that impact speech.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.