SCIENTISTS HAVE DISCOVERED that zebra finches use two separate parts of their brain to learn song, and that one part teaches the other.
Previously, it was thought that only one circuit in the brain was used for this function. However, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that finch brains uses two parts: the “tutor” and the “student”, and that the tutor instructs the student part of the brain.
The study, which appeared in the journal eLife, used a two-stage model of learning and simulations to test its findings. The researchers found that zebra finches hear the song, remember it, sing it back and adjust it for a month or so until it sounds right. As the bird sings, it learns to control its syrinx and its respiratory muscles.
Lead researcher, physics professor Vijay Balasubramanian, said: “They start out babbling, and then eventually this congeals into trills and phrases and sounds like a song.”
As part of this learning process, the tutor part of the brain gives the student part feedback on the quality of the song and instructions on how to improve.
In addition, the tutor may have to adapt its teaching style to how the student learns best. By looking at neurons in the brain, the researchers found that depending on the style of learning, different kinds of teaching may be more or less effective.
Prof Balasubramanian explained: “Depending on how the neuron changes its strength of connections, the teaching signal should be adapted to the area of the brain that’s trying to learn, in such a manner as to help it learn well.
“We worked out how the teacher should adapt to the student to teach it well, and used them to try to make some predictions about how learning would work in the song-learning system of the bird.”