Bored birds, busy brains: Habituation to song initiates significant molecular changes in auditory forebrain of zebra finch

When we think of habituation, we tend to think of a process in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioural response(s) over time following an organism’s exposure to a stimulus. Conceptualising habituation in this manner seems to imply the loss of something once an initial learning event has taken place. Although this may accurately describe what occurs at the psychological and behavioural levels, a study by a group of scientists from the University of Illinois (Dong et al. 2010), which examines habituation at the neurobiological level, shows that contrary to this conceptualisation, both initial exposure and habituation to song playbacks initiates a vast array of genetic activity in the zebra finch brain.

The systematic regulation of FoxP2 expression in singing zebra finches has been the subject of previous posts, but there is also a growing literature, of which Dong et al’s study is a part, documenting increases in ZENK gene (which encodes a transcription factor protein that in turn regulates the expression of other target genes) expression in zebra finch auditory forebrain areas in response to playbacks of song or the song of a conspecific. Studies showed that ZENK expression seems to mirror the typical decline in response associated with habituation in that after a certain amount of repetition, presentation of the song that originally elicited upregulation of ZENK no longer did so, and that ZENK returned to baseline levels – although upregulation of ZENK would occur if a different song or an aspect of novelty was introduced (i.e. the original song was presented in a different visual or spatial context).

What Dong et al. have demonstrated by conducting a large scale analysis of gene expression at initial exposure, habituation, and post-habituation stages however, is that unexpectedly profound genetic changes occur as a result of habituation in the absence of any additional novel stimuli following the surge of activity observed during initial exposure to novel song. Thus, the resounding merits of the Dong et al. (2010) study lie in the broadness of their approach, providing a true sense of magnitude with respect to genomic involvement in vocal communication and illuminating important influences that have gone unnoticed by studies with a narrower focus. I summarise the experimental design and findings of the paper below.

Continue reading “Bored birds, busy brains: Habituation to song initiates significant molecular changes in auditory forebrain of zebra finch”

Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function

Experimental studies (e.g. Jones & Munhall 2000) indicate that humans monitor their own speech through hearing in order to maintain accurate vocal articulation throughout the lifespan. Similarly, songbirds not only rely on song input from tutors and conspecifics in the early stages of song development, but also on the ability to hear and detect production errors in their own song and adjust it accordingly with reference to an internal ‘sensory target’ following the initial song learning phase.

This phenomenon also extends to ‘closed-ended learners’  – birds who do not acquire novel song elements after an initial learning period, but who still demonstrate song variability in adulthood. Experimental studies have shown that in such species, vocal learning is more prolonged and fundamental to song production than originally thought. For example, Okanoya and Yamaguchi (1997) showed that afflicted deafening in adult Bengalese Finches resulted in the production of abnormal song syntax in a matter of days. This is parallel to the human condition whereby linguistic fidelity, particularly with regards to prosodic aspects such as pitch and intensity, gradually degrades in human adults with postlinguistically acquired auditory impairments.

Continue reading “Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function”

Some Links #10: Poo lady tweets shit

Gillian McKeith: You are what you tweet. If you thought the subject of my title was some five-year who just discovered various nouns for his excrement, then you’re not far off: Gillian McKeith is back, and like any bad-sequel she’s saying the same shit, just repackaged into an eerily similar set of events. What I particularly loved about this article is McKeith’s denial that she’s actually the McKeith in question. Confused? Head over and read the article. It’s short and fun.

A strong dose of regulation will keep the health food industry regular. Interesting article by Martin Robbins (of Lay Scientist) over at the Guardian. I’m not normally one for regulation: I think it’s often a backwards way of looking at an issue. And I’m definitely against our ridiculous zeal for legislation-only solutions. But I do think in the case of the health food industry regulation and legislation are fantastically effective. To bring it back to the post above: McKeith has literally made millions through the exploitation of a weakly controlled industry. Ultimately, though, I do think we need to also consider the other effective weapon against these erroneous claims: education. After all, those who know, know not to buy.

I Write Like… H.P. Lovecraft, apparently. It probably explains the lack of comments on my posts: people are scared shitless. It’s okay, I’m not a venomous wordsmith, just a former linguistics student searching for a new university to call home. See, not so scary now… Click the link if you fancy wasting a minute or so of your time.

The Price of Altruism. I always remember first learning about the Price equation at university, and the sad story of its progenitor, George Price, who committed suicide in 1975. Over a Gene Expression, Razib Khan has written a fantastic, in-depth review of Oren Harman’s book, The Price of Altruism. There are too many snippets of information to pick out for a summary, but here’s an ironically amusing section:

The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist.

Matt Ridley: When Ideas Have Sex. Love him for his biology, or loathe him for his economics, you can’t help but nod in agreement with Matt Ridley’s TED talk. I think he over emphasizes this apparent trend of good times to come. He clearly hasn’t read Taleb’s Black Swan (and probably isn’t all too interested given his risk-taking strategies at Northern Rock). But his stuff on trade and cultural evolution is fairly rock solid from my perspective.