Parrots, songbirds have evolved distinct brain mechanisms

When humans learn to speak a language, we learn to produce new vocalizations and use them flexibly for communication, but how the brain is able to achieve this is an important but largely unanswered question, according to Zhilei Zhao, Klarman Fellow in neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

To explore this question, Zhao and Cornell collaborators compared the brain pathways of songbirds and parrots. The two groups diverged 50 million years ago but both have vocal learning ability. The researchers found drastically different effects in the two species’ brain mechanisms, providing a clue into how parrot – and human – brains allow continuous, flexible vocal learning.

Anterior forebrain pathway in parrots is necessary for producing vocalization with individual signatures” published in Current Biology on Dec. 8 with Zhao as first author. Co-authors from the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (A&S) are: Jesse H. Goldberg, associate professor of neurobiology and behavior and Robert R. Capranica Fellow; research specialists Julie Carpenter and Brian Kardon; and undergraduate researcher Frieda Nemon. Co-authors from the Department of Physics (A&S) are Itai Cohen, professor of physics; and doctoral student Han Kheng Teoh.

Songbirds and parrots make a useful comparison because they have distinct evolutionary histories and vocal learning capacities, Zhao said. Zebra finches, the most studied songbird species, learn one song during the juvenile stage and have little change afterwards. This is very different from parrots and humans, who continuously learn new vocalizations throughout life and produce flexible vocal sequences.

Read the full story on the College of Arts and Sciences website.

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