Male zebra finches, small songbirds native to central Australia, learn their songs by copying what they hear from their fathers. These songs, often used as mating calls, develop early in life as juvenile birds experiment with mimicking the sounds they hear. MIT neuroscientists have now uncovered the brain activity that supports this learning process. Sequences of neural activity that encode the birds’ first song syllable are duplicated and altered slightly, allowing the birds to produce several variations on the original syllable. Eventually these syllables are strung together into the bird’s signature song, which remains constant for life. “The advantage here is that in order to learn new syllables, you don’t have to learn them from scratch. You can reuse what you’ve learned and modify it slightly. We think it’s an efficient way to learn various types of syllables,” says Tatsuo Okubo, a former MIT graduate student and lead author of the study, which appears in the Nov. 30 online edition of Nature.
When zebra finches begin to sing, about 30 days after hatching, they produce only nonsense syllables known as subsong, similar to the babble of human babies. At first, the duration of these syllables is highly variable, but after a week or so they turn into more consistent sounds called protosyllables, which last about 100 milliseconds. Each bird learns one protosyllable that forms a scaffold for subsequent syllables. “From that short sequence it splits into new sequences for the next new syllables,” Mackevicius says. “It starts with that short chain that has a lot of redundancy in it, and splits off some neurons for syllable A and some neurons for syllable B.” This splitting of neural sequences happens repeatedly until the birds can produce between three and seven different syllables, the researchers found. This entire process takes about two months, at which point each bird has settled on its final song.