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Researchers Implant Memories Into Bird Brains

In an effort to learn more about brain pathways, researchers successfully implanted false memories into the brains of Zebra finches. The small birds naturally learn to sing from their fathers, but by implanting memories of songs into the birds’ brains, researchers were able to teach the birds to sing songs that they had never heard before.

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To conduct the experiment, researchers modified the birds’ neurons using optogenics, which involves using light for behavioral control of photosensitive proteins in neurons (brain cells). This technique allows scientists to control when a neuron fires. It allowed them to alter brain activity in the Nif — a sensorimotor area that sends information to a brain region in songbirds called the HVC, which is involved in learning and reproducing songs.

Researchers implanted memories into the birds’ brains by pulsing light in a rhythm. The notes of the song matched the duration of the light pulses, mimicking the way the bird would learn a song from its father.

Zebra finches learn to sing by imitating what they hear, similar to how humans learn language. The experiment was conducted in hopes of discovering more about how humans learn to speak, and to provide scientists with more information on targeting specific genes and neurons to help improve speaking skills in people with conditions that may affect vocalization, such as autism.

Todd Roberts, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Southwestern O’Donnell Brian Institute, explained, "This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioral-goal memories. The findings enabled us to implant these memories into the birds and guide the learning of their song.”

Roberts added, "The human brain and the pathways associated with speech and language are immensely more complicated than the songbird's circuitry. But our research is providing strong clues of where to look for more insight on neurodevelopmental disorders."