Transgenic Songbirds Provide New Tool To Understand The Brain

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The ability to manipulate songbird genes may yield the molecular secrets of vocal learning and neuronal replacement.

You can learn a lot from an animal. By manipulating the DNA of mice, flies, frogs and worms, scientists have discovered a great deal about the genes and molecules behind many of life’s essential processes. These basic functions often work about the same in people as they do in “model” animals. But if you want to study more sophisticated cognitive processes such as humans’ ability to learn language from one another, you need a more sophisticated organism. For the first time, researchers have devised a way to alter the genes of the zebra finch, one of a handful of social animals that learn to “speak” by imitating their fellows.

After decades of studying the behavior and anatomy of vocal learning, scientists will be able to use the technique to explore vocal learning at the molecular level. The new tool, reported online in the September 28 issue of PNAS Early Edition, may also reveal secrets about exactly how, when and why some neurons are replaced in the adult brain.