Neuroscientists uncover secret to intelligence in parrots

July 3, 2018 by Katie Willis, University of Alberta
Not-so-bird brain: Neuroscientists discover the mechanism responsible for cognition in intelligent birds, like this parrot. Credit: Andrew Iwaniuk

University of Alberta neuroscientists have identified the neural circuit that may underlie intelligence in birds, according to a new study. The discovery is an example of convergent evolution between the brains of birds and primates, with the potential to provide insight into the neural basis of human intelligence.

"An area of the that plays a major role in primate intelligence is called the pontine nuclei," explained Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology. "This structure transfers information between the two largest areas of the brain, the cortex and cerebellum, which allows for higher-order processing and more sophisticated behaviour. In humans and primates, the pontine nuclei are large compared to other mammals. This makes sense given our cognitive abilities."

Birds have very small pontine nuclei. Instead, they have a similar structure called the medial spiriform nucleus (SpM) that has similar connectivity. Located in a different part of the brain, the SpM does the same thing as the pontine nuclei, circulating information between the cortex and the cerebellum. "This loop between the cortex and the cerebellum is important for the planning and execution of sophisticated behaviours," said Doug Wylie, professor of psychology and co-author on the new study.

Not-so-bird brain

Using samples from 98 from the largest collection of in the world, including everything from chickens and waterfowl to parrots and owls, the scientists studied the brains of birds, comparing the relative size of the SpM to the rest of the brain. They determined that parrots have a SpM that is much larger than that of other birds.

"The SpM is very large in parrots. It's actually two to five times larger in parrots than in other birds, like chickens," said Gutierrez. "Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the , similar to primates. This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates. It starts with sophisticated behaviours, like tool use and self-awareness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see."

Next, the research team hopes to study the SpM in more closely, to understand what types of information go there and why.

"This could present an excellent way to study how the similar, pontine-based, process occurs in humans," added Gutierrez. "It might give us a way to better understand how our work."

This research was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Lethbridge. The paper, "Parrots have evolved a primate-like telencephalic-midbrain-cerebellar circuit," was published in Scientific Reports.

Explore further: Research gives new meaning to the term 'bird brain'

More information: Cristián Gutiérrez-Ibáñez et al, Parrots have evolved a primate-like telencephalic-midbrain-cerebellar circuit, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-28301-4

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5 / 5 (2) Jul 03, 2018
'the neural circuit that may UNDERLIE intelligence'
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2018
Quite right Anon. Here how it works:
1. It is known parrots are intelligent.
2. Need to write a publication. Or perish.
3. No one has a clue how brain works.
4. Pick a random something you noticed and claim this is the cause. Why not, ancient Greeks came up with 4 elements, and it took a couple thousand years to conclusively show it is a nonsense.
5. Parrot intelligence is not as important as 4. above, so no one will ever bother to disprove it, or even remember.

Next year - same, year later - same.
Year after - throw another dart at a picture of a parrot's brain. New discovery!
3.5 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2018
They should have a look at crows as well, see what their SpM's look like.
Da Schneib
3.9 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2018
No kidding, Ojorf. Crows at Yellowstone are known to be able to untie and/or unzip flaps on carry packs of various sorts to steal the bag lunch inside. Some of the cognitive tasks they have been shown to undertake successfully in experiments are quite startling.
3.5 / 5 (8) Jul 04, 2018
Also quite smart and very interesting are octopuses.
I don't thing they share any brain anatomy with vertebrates and about 2/3rds of their neurons are in the arms, not the central 'brain'.
Jul 04, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2018
The discovery is an example of convergent evolution between the brains of birds and primates,

Again, what was actually discovered and what do some people want it to mean?

The discovery stands by itself and has absolutely nothing to do with what happened in history.
There is no way to connect the discovery with the supposed "convergent evolution" that is being touted here in a totally fact-free manner. The non-science sprouted by the evolutionary speak is as much hot gas as any from an active geiser.

3 / 5 (7) Jul 04, 2018
Oops, Fred doesn't know what 'convergent evolution' is.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2018
Canadian readers should note that it mentions the pontine nuclei, not poutine. I was only confused for a tiny fraction of a second, but...
joel in oakland
5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2018
@ NoStrings
"3. No one has a clue how brain works."
Just because you don't doesn't mean "no one" does. Study the last 25 years of neuropsych & get a clue.

Now, if by "brain" you mean "consciousness", well that's a very different matter but not under discussion here.
Da Schneib
3 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2018
@Ojorf, I have met an octopus. At an aquarium in Oregon. He was very curious. He tasted my skin with his tentacles, which tickled. He showed me one of his toys, and we played with it. He let me pet his head, and the aquarist said that was rare, that he didn't generally trust people that much, and that it was probably because I didn't flinch. He made himself nubbly when I did it.
Da Schneib
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 06, 2018
I have also met a black panther. We played "touch the stick." You could hear him purr, loudly. His predecessor and I had met also; a couple years previous to that, I had been taking pictures of him and some young men came up to the cage and began tormenting him to get him to do something. He had a large (half-meter or two foot) ball. In front of him was a small pool of water. After a bit he batted the ball into the water and splashed the young men, without getting a drop on me (I was right next to them). They shut up and left. I stayed and got some good shots. I told this story to the keeper and it made him happy; he said that cat had died of cancer since I had been there before, and it had always bothered him that people tormented him when he had been in such pain.

I have also met the cutest orangutan toddler ever. She was fascinated by my big lens, and enormously curious. She did somersaults for me, and had the cutest grin when she saw I was fascinated.
not rated yet Jul 09, 2018
Oops, Fred doesn't know what 'convergent evolution' is.

Not to speak about geysers ;)
not rated yet Jul 09, 2018
Oops, Fred doesn't know what 'convergent evolution' is.

Not to speak about geysers ;)

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