Birds learn songs they’ve never heard via electronic memory implants

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Dr Todd Roberts and his colleagues managed to control the length of the notes zebra finches tweeted by using fibre optic light to etch memories into the birds


Scientists take control of birds’ minds and change the songs they chirp by using fibre optics to alter their brain waves

  • Young zebra finches in Texas laboratory are tweeting never heard before songs 
  • Like humans with language, baby birds learn birdsong by mimicking their parent
  • But by manipulating brain activity, scientists can skip lengthy tutor process 

Young zebra finches in a Texas laboratory are tweeting out birdsong which they have never heard after scientists implanted false memories into their brains.

In the same way children learn to speak by absorbing language used by their parents, baby finches pick up birdsong by mimicking their fathers and learning it over time.

But by manipulating electrical activity in the brain, University of Texas experts  learned how to skip this lengthy process and lodge the tune in the finch’s mind.

The scientists believe the breakthrough could have wide-ranging applications, including treating people struggling with autism or speech disorders.

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Dr Todd Roberts and his colleagues managed to control the length of the notes zebra finches tweeted by using fibre optic light to etch memories into the birds’ brains

One of the study’s authors, Dr Todd Roberts said: ‘This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioral-goal memories – those memories that guide us when we want to imitate anything from speech to learning the piano.

‘The findings enabled us to implant these memories into the birds and guide the learning of their song.’

The Texas neuroscientists, who published their findings in Science journal, activated proteins in the finches’ brains by a process called optogenetics.

This is a branch of science which can use fibre optic light to activate specific genes in the brain and control certain parts of it. 

Dr Roberts’s team created the memories of birdsong by firing light into the finches’ brain with the duration of the beam corresponding to the length of the note in the song. 

The shorter the light exposure, the shorter the note the bird produced.

Dr Roberts said: ‘We’re not teaching the bird everything it needs to know – just the duration of syllables in its song. 

‘The two brain regions we tested in this study represent just one piece of the puzzle. 

‘If we figure out those other pathways, we could hypothetically teach a bird to sing its song without any interaction from its father. 

‘But we’re a long way from being able to do that.’   

Previously, Dr Roberts said it has been hard to isolate which section of the finches’ brain is used to store memories.

But by targeting the NIf region and controlling the information it sends to the HVC region, the team found that memories are embedded somewhere other than where they were first formed. 

The team said their experiment had helped them to understand how the brain forms and stores memories, and potentially opened avenues to forging the process.

Past research has suggested the same process is possible in mice.

And if the technique were to work in humans, the New Scientist reported, it could help to alter the memories of people who are haunted by trauma.

How does optogenetics work?

Scientists artificially encoded memories into birds by manipulating neuron activity in the NIf region (pictured)

Scientists artificially encoded memories into birds by manipulating neuron activity in the NIf region (pictured)

Optogenics is the scientific description of controlling a neuron’s behaviour by combining intense lights and genetic engineering. 

The technique involves neuroscientists taking the genetic code of the a selected group of neurons and adding a changing its genetic code. 

This engineered code allows these neurons to create special proteins, called opsins.

Opsins can be activated by light beams and so the brain activity of the organism can be altered by effectively re-writing neurons via the proteins.

There are two types of proteins which have a symbiotic relationship, according to Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour.

Optogenetic sensors emit light in response to neuronal signals, such as synaptic impulses or action potentials. 

These sensor proteins make activity visible. Optogenetic actuators absorb light and cause changes in neuronal signals, such as ionic currents.

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