Bird song study gives clues to human stuttering

Jun 11, 2007

Researchers at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City used functional MRI to determine that songbirds have a pronounced right-brain response to the sound of songs, establishing a foundational study for future research on songbird models of speech disorders such as stuttering, as reported today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is the first functional MRI study to determine how vocal sounds are represented within the brain of an awake zebra finch, a well-studied animal model of vocal learning. Because of many similarities between birdsong and human speech, this research could lead to a better understanding of the cause of stuttering and other speech problems.

By using specifically-tailored high-resolution fMRI in awake, mildly sedated zebra finches, scientists were able to look at the activity in the entire avian brain during song stimulation.

"While we found that both sides of the brain were activated by sounds in the songbirds, our research showed that the right side of their brains discriminated sounds better," said Santosh A. Helekar, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the paper. Helekar is associate research professor of neuroscience at the Methodist NI and Weill Cornell. "If we can link what we find in birds to what we already know about human brains, then we could better understand the causes of speech disorders and, in the long-run, be able to provide treatments to patients."

Helekar has long collaborated with Dr. David Rosenfield, director of the speech and language center at the Methodist NI and a nationally-renowned language expert, to study stuttering and other speech disorders.

Using the blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI method, researchers observed brain response patterns in 16 adult zebra finches during playback of the birds' own song, their tutor's song, an unfamiliar zebra finch's song, and a synthetic sound of a single frequency. The songbirds' own song caused a stronger response in the auditory areas of the brain. The overall findings suggest that vocal sounds may be better represented on the right side of the brain in these songbirds.

"We don't know exactly what goes wrong with the human brain when a patient stutters or has a particular speech problem. But, if we can understand the neurobiology of the brain of this animal model and how sounds are processed by birds that produce normal and variant songs, then we may be able to translate these findings into treatments for patients with disorders such as stuttering and verbal dyspraxia," said Henning U. Voss, Ph.D., first author on the PNAS paper and assistant professor of physics in radiology at Citigroup Biomedical Imaging Center of Weill Cornell Medical College.

The vocal learning process in the zebra finch offers a model system to study the neural and behavioral mechanisms by which humans learn to produce sounds. Songbirds such as zebra finches have specialized areas of their brains devoted to communication. That is why they have been used as animal models to study speech disorders, such as stuttering. It is estimated that more than 3 million Americans stutter.

Source: New York- Presbyterian Hospital

Explore further: Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

Related Stories

Thinking alike changes the conversation

May 19, 2015

As social creatures, we tend to mimic each other's posture, laughter, and other behaviors, including how we speak. Now a new study shows that people with similar views tend to more closely mirror, or align, ...

Applause triggers award for Meccanoid robot in Vegas

Jan 12, 2015

The open source robotic building platform, Meccanoid G15 KS from Spin Master, won top prize in a "Last Gadget Standing" showdown at CES on Thursday. Damon Poeter of PCMag described The Meccanoid G15 KS as ...

Recommended for you

Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

13 hours ago

Male moths locate females by navigating along the latter's pheromone (odor) plume, often flying hundreds of meters to do so. Two strategies are involved to accomplish this: males must find the outer envelope ...

Bacterial tenants in fungal quarters

23 hours ago

Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich researchers have sequenced the genome of a bacterial symbiont hosted by a mycorrhizal fungus. Analysis of the symbiont's genetic endowment reveals previously unknown ...

Natural enzyme examined as antibiotics alternative

May 29, 2015

In 1921, Alexander Fleming discovered the antimicrobial powers of the enzyme lysozyme after observing diminished bacterial growth in a Petri dish where a drop from his runny nose had fallen. The famed Scottish ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.