May 22, 2012

Birdsong: New Hope for People with Parkinson’s?


I’m sitting in my comfy chair on the porch, slurping my first cup of morning coffee, looking up at the trees, and listening to the birds in a brand new way.

As I learned yesterday, male songbirds apparently use a “smart” part of their brains – called basal ganglia – to learn and adjust their tunes in order for those songs to have the best possible effect on female songbirds lurking in the neighborhood.

These basal ganglia do not by themselves exercise control over the birds’ singing; rather, they act as a kind of information hub -- collecting, interpreting, and transmitting key tidbits of information.

The online journal Nature published this finding on May 20, 2012. Conducted by researchers at the University of California / San Francisco (UCSF), the study has intriguing implications for treating neurological disorders that impair movement, like Parkinson’s disease and Huntington disease.

In an especially interesting part of the study, researchers played an unpleasant “white noise” whenever the songbirds sang a particular note. The birds clearly did not like that white noise, and quickly learned to avoid hitting the noise-producing pitch altogether. Study leaders believe the info hub -- the basal ganglia – was largely responsible for the birds’ remarkably fast learning curve and subsequent pitch adjustment.

The key to the study’s potential usefulness is understanding the functioning of those basal ganglia, clusters of interconnected brain elements that control motor function and learning. It is these info-collecting ganglia that male songbirds use to undertake the complex trial-and-error process that yields more useful, beneficial results. For the birds, that improvement would create a more successful, alluring tune. For a person with Parkinson’s, it might be a more certain step.

Said Jonathan Charlesworth, one of the study’s authors and a recent graduate of UCSF’s neuroscience PhD program:
It’s as if a golfer went to the driving range and was terrible, hitting the ball into the trees all day and not getting any better. Then, at the end of the day, you throw a switch and all of a sudden you’re hitting the fairway like you’re Tiger Woods.
One might expect specific skill improvement to take lots of time, as the basal ganglia assembles and evaluates information and makes adjustments. Said UCSF associate professor and study leader Dr. Michael Brainard:
The surprise here is that the basal ganglia can pay attention, observe what other motor structures are doing and get information even when they aren’t involved in motor control. They covertly learned how to improve skill performance and this explains how they did it.
This study wouldn’t be the first time our species has learned from birds and found birds useful. They inspired us to fly, after all. We know that male songbirds learn tunes from their fathers, whose own Barry White stylings obviously had an impact on mom. We know that these young birds learn songs even while sleeping. Might the implications from this new finding lead us toward some break-through in improving mobility for people with Parkinson’s or Huntington’s?

Stranger things have happened.

Here’s a review of the study from the May 20 edition of the online journal Science Daily.

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