Researchers have managed to teach birds songs that they had never heard before after activating select neurons within their brains—basically implanting false memories.
The very notion sounds like the prologue to the plot for the 1990 film Total Recall, where the protagonist, Quaid, is a construction worker whose adventures begin after he purchases fake memory implants of a life where he is a secret agent.
However, in this case, neuroscientists at the University of Texas Southwestern relied on a different process called optogenetics, or the scientific name for controlling the behavior of neurons through a combination of intense lights and genetic engineering. Their findings were published in Science.
Young zebra finches typically learn their birdsongs by absorbing and mimicking the songs of their parents. However, researchers managed to manipulate electrical activity in the birds’ mind, inserting genes into specific neurons into their brains that relate to learning songs. These genes allowed the scientists to activate proteins within the finches’ brains, lodging the song into their minds.
In a statement, study co-author 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.
While the results of the experiment are an impressive feat, the sort of detail-rich, granular memories we enjoy still can’t be implanted in humans. However, the study could well open the door to potential treatments for human beings, including treating people affected by traumatic pasts, autism, and speech disorders.
“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.”
Yet the discovery may open new doors to researchers identifying brain circuits that play a strong role in influencing vocalization, including the order of sounds and their pitch.
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.”
Roberts’ team had previously found it difficult to isolate the sections of finches’ brain where memories are stored. However, the latest experiment has found that memories are actually embedded in different parts of the birds’ brains than where they originated.
“The human brain and the pathways associated with speech and language are immensely more complicated than the songbird’s circuitry.
But our research is providing strong clues of where to look for more insight on neurodevelopmental disorders.”
— Shawn (@AxlWarpshaft01) October 3, 2019