Bird Brains Key to the Functions of Sleep

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Science  19 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5909, pp. 1789
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1789a

In their letter “A bird's eye view of sleep” (24 October, p. 527), N. C. Rattenborg et al. argue that birds “provide a largely untapped opportunity to determine the functions of these [sleep] states in mammals.” We wholeheartedly agree that birds make excellent model organisms for the study of sleep. However, these authors seem unaware of the fact that the opportunity has in fact been seized, with fascinating results.


Recently, Low and colleagues (1) demonstrated that the structure of sleep in zebra finches is remarkably similar to that of mammals. It has become apparent that sleep plays an important part in avian learning and memory. Working with zebra finches, Dave and Margoliash found “replay” of neuronal activity during sleep that was similar to activity observed when the bird was singing (2). In addition, Deregnaucourt et al. showed that sleep influences song acquisition in young zebra finches (3). Further advances were made in the other major avian memory paradigm, imprinting in domestic chicks. Work from Gabriel Horn's laboratory (4) has revealed that a period of sleep immediately after imprinting training is necessary for memory consolidation. In both of these avian paradigms, the neural substrate of memory has been localized—an issue that is still contentious in most mammalian models (5). Thus, research on birds has already made considerable advances when it comes to unraveling the functions of sleep.


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