News of the WeekNeurobiology

Birds May Refine Their Songs While Sleeping

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Science  18 Dec 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5397, pp. 2163-2165
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5397.2163

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Young male songbirds first learn their songs by copying the melodies of other males, but then go on to add flourishes of their own. Some researchers think that this happens "on line," with the birds improving their technique as they sing, but new evidence reported on page 2250 suggests that at least some song learning and refinement occurs while the birds sleep. The researchers found, for example, that auditory signals triggered by the birds' own songs flow freely between the brain areas governing singing only when the birds are asleep. Other observers want to see more direct evidence that that flow is in fact influencing the birds' songs, but they are nonetheless impressed by the work because it's the first time such measurements have been made on unanesthetized birds. It might also provide new clues to human language learning.