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How Songbirds Provide New Insight Into T…he brain

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Like musicians, songbirds must practice and refine the songs they learn to become consistent performers and, yes, to even impress potential mates. But how birds learn to sing has remained a mystery until a team of researchers led by Hamish Mehaffey of the University of California, San Francisco identified how two well-known brain pathways interact during song learning.

"So we found a mechanism, by which two of the pathways that we knew were really important for song learning, were able to interact and change each other. And were able to show that they changed in an unusual way, but a way that's consistent with what we know about song learning, where effectively, a part of the brain that controls and conducts the song, is able to interact with the part of the brain that is actively, perturbing it and kicking it around, and making it change a little bit, from trial-to-trial."

Mehaffey says that this all happens in a specialized portion of the brain that’s similar to the human basal ganglia. He says the findings could help explain how humans learn complex motor skills such as playing an instrument or driving a car.

"One of the things we've learned is that this part of the brain is also really important for learning new things and adapting over the course of your life."

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