Bird Song Studies and Human Speech Disorders….

Researchers at Wesleyan University (Middletown CT) and elsewhere are studying birdsong in an effort to better understand human speech disorders. Using Canaries and Zebra Finches as laboratory subjects scientists are using techniques such as MRI, deafening and botox injection to learn more about neuron addition when songs are being learned. One study described as:

…. the first functional MRI study to agree on how vocal sounds are represented within the brain of an awake zebra finch, a well-studied animal model of vocal learning. Because of many similarities between birdsong and human speech, this research could lead to an improved understanding of the cause of stuttering and other speech problems…..The vocal learning process in the zebra finch offers a model system to study the neural and behavioral mechanisms by which humans learn to make sounds. Songbirds such as zebra finches have specialized areas of their brains dedicated to communication. That is why they have been used as animal models to study speech disorders, such as stuttering. It is estimated that more than 3 million Americans stutter.

Prof. John R Kirn at Weleyan’s Biology Department was recently interviewed on the student run radio station WESU-FM (88.1) about his current study of birdsong in the Zebra Finch. A weekly radio program called Faculty Lounge presents each week an hour long interview with a Wesleyan professor. Those interested can download the entire interviews as podcasts. Prof. Kirn’s complete interview can be heard here. I have also made a 10 minute excerpt of an especially interesting part of his interview.

In an ABC story from late last year we learn:

Researchers at Wesleyan University are using botulinum toxin A, marketed under the name of Botox, to study how songbirds are able to pull off a unique miracle in the animal kingdom and regrow the brain cells that die as they age.

They are working under the hypothesis that the key to regeneration of neurons lies in singing, at least for the zebra finch, a small bird of Australian origin that spends its life trying to master the perfect song.

“We’re basically asking the question, is it singing a correct song that matters in terms of regulating this process (of neuro-regeneration)?” says John Kirn, associate professor of biology and chair of the neuroscience and behavior department at Wesleyan.

According to Prof. Kirn the Zebra Finch’s song is not particularly melodious and “sounds somewhat like a car that won’t start”. (short audio here)

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One Response to “Bird Song Studies and Human Speech Disorders….”

  1. lvn600 Says:

    Thanks for posting that interesting article. I rarely read the newspaper or watch the news so at least I learned about something new going on.I’nm going to come back to this post to check out some of the links.

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