Stuttering Finches

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Science  01 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5595, pp. 959a
DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5595.959a

Zebra finches sometimes stutter when they sing, and if normal baby finches are raised by stutterers, more than half will grow up stuttering worse than their tutors do. This malleability, say researchers, suggests that finches might qualify as an animal model for human stuttering.

Young male finches with stuttering coach (r).

CREDIT: SANTASH HELEKAR

Among zebra finches, only the males have songs, and about one in 20 stutter—usually repeating sounds at the ends of phrases. Although there's clearly a genetic component to stuttering, behavioral neurologist David Rosenfield of Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, wanted to see how nurture contributes to the problem. So he and colleagues housed 30 male nestlings with stuttering males for 10 months as they grew up.

At the end of that period, a female was brought in to inspire the trainees to launch into their courtship songs. Half chirped normally, but the other half stumbled badly, stuttering at the ends of their songs or even breaking off without finishing, Rosenfield said. But when tutored stutterers were put among normal zebra finches for several months, their diction improved, although none has yet stopped stuttering completely.

All this suggests that stuttering not only can be learned but unlearned, Rosenfield says. “The extent to which the model truly mimics the central processes involved in human stuttering remains to be seen, but this is the best approach I've seen so far toward establishing an animal model for stuttering,” says neurobiologist Steven Goldman of Cornell University.

Rosenfield, who presented the findings in New York last month at the meeting of the American Neurological Association, says further bird experiments might help scientists distinguish and tailor treatments for different types of human stutterers.

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