img: Maurice van Bruggen

the brains of three zebra finches are studied while they sing songs. each of the birds had different sequences & syllables in their song. activity in the brain's 'premotor cortex' reveals how these syllables may be strung together  

original article: Brown et al., 2021 (Public Library of Science Computational Biology), reported in: The Daily Mail by Ryan Morrison on 23rd September 2021 image source

this story was in episode 18 #bird #song #zebra #finch #electrode #syllable

the error bar says

one of the troubling things i've learnt from this podcast is that The Daily Mail - the pantomime villain of Britain's press - publishes some of the best brain science news.

in ANOTHER headline without CAPITALS, the Mail tells us that scientists are using machine learning to decode patterns of syllables in bird song.

& that's exactly what the scientists did. computer scientists & neuroscientists in California took three male zebra finches - famed for their pretty colours & songs - implanted electrodes into the equivalent of their premotor cortex - that's an important part of the brain involved in planning movements - & studied the bird brain activity while they sung their pretty songs.

using advanced statistical techniques, they de-composed the brain activity related to the birds' songs into different frequencies, patterns & syllables. the paper focused on a signal called the 'local field potential', which reflects the coordinated electrical activity of a small chunk of brain.

the authors claim this work will help create artificial brain implants for people who've lost the use of limbs, or perhaps their voice. such brain implants could learn & reproduce the signals generated in the brain during complex sequences of movements, such as typing or talking.

is this the brain science of bird song?

i'm not expert enough to understand the novelty or implications of this research & at 38 pages the paper is long - but from what i could understand, this is careful, sophisticated & beautifully presented work.

brain implants in humans regularly feature in the popular press. in the last episode, we did not report the brain science story covered by almost all of the papers - about brain stimulation for depression - because the original article was not open access. sorry.

it is only through fundamental neuroscience research - like this bird song paper - that we have been able to develop brain implants & brain stimulation therapies for humans. i am a bird-lover & there will always be something unsettling about this sort of invasive animal experiments.

but this detailed study of three finches allows us to appreciate birds even more. the three finches had different songs, with different sequences & complexities of syllables. for their main statistical analyses the researchers were forced to choose the most-stereotyped, most-boring singer of the three birds - who they called z007, yes, double-O-seven. we clearly have much yet to learn about how even relatively simple brains produce relatively simple behaviours.

the Mail's article about this beautiful study is ruined only by its last sentence - probably added by an editor - in which we are updated about what Elon Musk has been doing this week 🤦.


a bird named z007 - bird bond - shows us the complex and beautiful relationships between activity in their brain & the syllables of their song. there is much yet to learn.


The Daily Mail: fact - scientific story reported well