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Finches Learn Even When Practice Isn't Perfect

from Nature News

Birds can master new skills without the gradual improvements that normally occur with training. The improvement is all down to an ancient part of the brain that is present in all vertebrate species. Learning complex motor skills such as speech or dance movements involves imitation and trial and error. Young songbirds, for example, learn to sing by copying an adult tutor, and practising the song thousands of times until they have perfected every syllable.

The underlying brain mechanisms are unknown, but one influential model states that structures called the basal ganglia generate a variety of movement patterns that are tried out by the motor cortex, which executes the movements. The basal ganglia then reinforce the best pattern by transmitting a rewarding dopamine signal after receiving feedback on the result of the movement from the motor cortex.

But research published today [May 20] in Nature challenges this view. Jonathan Charlesworth, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues trained Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata domestica) to modify the pitch of one song syllable in response to white noise.

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