Songbirds need so-called “human language gene” to learn new tunes

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe nasal screech of Chris Tucker sound worlds apart from the song of a nightingale but both human speech and birdsong actually have a lot in common. Both infants and chicks learn their respective tongues by imitating others. They pick up new material most easily during specific periods of time as they grow up, they need practice to improve and they pick up local dialects. And as infants unite words to form sentences, so do songbirds learn to combine separate riffs into a full song. Songbirds need so-called “human language gene” to learn new tunes

Because of these similarities, songbirds make a good model for inquisitive neuroscientists looking to understand the intricacies of human speech. Zebra finches are a particularly enlightening species and they have just shown Sebastian Haesler that the so-called human ‘language gene’ FOXP2 also controls an songbird’s ability to pick up new material.

FOXP2 has a long and sordid history of fascinating science and shoddy science writing. It has been consistently mislabelled as “the language gene” and after the discovery that the human and chimp versions differed by just two small changes, it was also held responsible for the evolution of human language. Even though these claims are far-fetched (for reasons I’ll delve into later), there is no doubt that faults in FOXP2 can spell disaster for a person’s ability to speak.

Mutated versions cause a speech impairment called developmental verbal dyspraxia (DVD), where people are unable to coordinate the positions of their jaws, lips, tongues and faces, even though their minds and relevant muscles are in reasonable working order. They’re like an orchestra that plays a cacophony despite having a decent conductor and tuned instruments.

Brain scans of people with DVD have revealed abnormalities in the basal ganglia, an group of neurons at the heart of the brain with several connections to other areas. Normal people show strong activation of FOXP2 here and fascinatingly, so do songbirds. Haesler reasoned that studying the role of this gene in birds could tell him more about its human counterpart.

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Broken chains and faulty mirrors cause problems for autistic children

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Autistic children have sever social problemsYour brain has an amazing ability to predict the future. For example, if you see someone reach for a chocolate, you can guess that they’re likely to pick it up, put it in their mouths and eat it. Like most people, you have a talent for understanding the goal of an action while you see it being performed – in this case, you know that reaching for the chocolate is only a step towards eating it.

That may not sound very impressive, but as with many mental skills, it’s only apparent how complicated it is when you see people who can’t do it.

Autistic people, for example, find it incredibly difficult to relate to other people and this may, in part, be because they can’t understand the why of someone else’s actions. While a typical child would understand that a mother holding her hands out is readying for a hug, an autistic child might be baffled by the gesture.

Now, a new study by Luigi Cattaneo, Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues suggests that autistic people find it difficult to understand the purpose of an act because they cannot string together different actions into a coherent whole. And underlying this problem is a special group of nerve cells called mirror neurons.

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‘Brainbow’ paints individual neurons with different colours

Brainbow - psychedelic neuroscienceAt Harvard University, a group of creative scientists have turned the brains of mice into beautiful tangles of colour. By mixing together a palette of fluorescent proteins, they have painted individual neurons with up to 90 different colours. Their technique, dubbed ‘Brainbow’, gives them an unprecedented vision of how the brain’s cells are connected to each other.

Black-and-white to colour

The art of looking at neurons had much greyer beginnings. Over a century ago, a Spanish scientist called Santiago Ramón y Cajal, one of the founders of modern neuroscience, became the first person to get a clear look at the neural network that houses our thoughts. He found that neurons stood out among other cells when stained with a silver chromate salt.

These monochrome images told us what neurons were, but made it very difficult to work out how they joined up into a network. It would be like trying to make sense of London’s famous tube map if all the lines were coloured with the same dull grey. Nowadays, neuroscientists can ‘tag’ neurons with fluorescent proteins, but even these are available in only a few shades.

Enter Brainbow, the brain-child of Jean Livet, Jeff Lichtman and colleagues from Harvard. It uses combinations of just four basic fluorescent proteins – which glow in either red, orange, yellow or blue ­– to paint neurons with a vast range of hues. It works like a TV, which combines red, green and blue light to form the entire colour spectrum.

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Fruit flies have a taste for fizzy drinks

Humans can detect five different taste sensations. Now scientists have found the first animal with a sixth type. Fruit flies, it seems, love the taste of the carbon dioxide dissolved in fizzy water.

Drosophila’s tongue can pick up carbon dioxide dissolved in liquids.Fizzy drinks like Perrier and Coca-Cola are targeted at a huge range of social groups, but if fruit flies had any capital to spend, they’d be at the top of the list. Unlike posh diners or hyperactive kids, flies have taste sensors that are specially tuned to the flavour of carbonated water.

Humans can pick up five basic tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). But other animals, with very different diets, can probably expand on this set.

And what better place to start looking for these unusual senses than the fruit fly Drosophila, a firm favourite of geneticists worldwide, and an animal with very different taste in food to our own.

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Simple sponges provide clues to origin of nervous system

The possible origins of the nervous system have been found in the simple sponge, an animal with no nervous system of its own. Sponges carry the genetic components of synapses, which may have been co-opted by evolution as a starting point for proper nerve cells

Sponges are the most primitive of all animals. They are immobile, and live by filtering detritus from the water. They have no brains or, for that matter, any organs, tissues or nervous system of any sort. If you were looking for the evolutionary origins of animal intelligence, you couldn’t really pick a less likely subject to study.

Over time, evolution co-opted the early PSD of the sponge and used it to craft true nervous systems.So it was with great surprise that Onur Sakarya from the University of California, Santa Barbara found that sponges carry the beginnings of a nervous system.

With no neurons to speak of, these animals still have the genetic components of synapses, one of the most crucial parts of the nervous system. And their versions share startling similarities with those of humans.

Synapses (and proto-synapses)

Synapses are junctions between two nerve cells that are allow the cells to pass on signals to each other. Signals are carried by molecules that cross the synaptic gap called neurotransmitters. When they reach the receiving cell, they come across an elaborate tangle of proteins called the post-synaptic density (PSD; labelled in red below). The PSD processes the neurotransmitters, among many other important roles, and allows the receiving cell to respond appropriately to the nervous signal

Sakarya searched for equivalents of the human PSD proteins in the genomes of other animals. For a start, he found an almost complete set in the starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis). The anemone (like its cousins, the jellyfish) is one of the Cnidarians, a group of animals that have the most rudimentary of nervous systems. Finding PSD genes in them is surprising but reasonable.

The synapse relays signals from one cell to another.But Sakarya was really surprised when he found the vast majority of the PSD assemblage in the sponge Amphimedon queenslandica, an animal that doesn’t even have a nervous system! The sponge’s PSD proteins bore remarkable resemblances to those of humans and other animals, and were built of similar arrangements of domains.

One in particular, the PDZ domain, allows PSD proteins to recognise one another and assemble correctly. When Sakarya compared the structures of the human and sponge PDZ domains, he found that at the atomic level, the parts they used to interact with other proteins were almost 90% identical. So not only does the sponge have the full set of PSD parts, it can assemble them into a fully-functioning whole.


So what is the PSD, part of the nervous system, doing in an animal without one? Sakarya believes that the PSD is an example of exaptation, a process where evolution co-opts an existing structure for another purpose. Bird feathers are a good example of this – they evolved in small dinosaurs to help them regulate their body temperature, and were only later used for flight.

Exaptation can explain how complex, integrated structures like the nervous system can evolve. Rather than building the whole thing from scratch, evolution took ‘off-the-shelf’ components, like the PSD, and put them together in exciting new ways.

Sponges are the simplest of animals but even they have genetic components of synapsesIn the same way, the PSD of sponges is switched on in a type of cell called the ‘flask cell’. Flask cells are only found in sponge larvae, which, unlike the adults, are free-swimming. These cells could help the larvae to sense their environment, and could well have been a starting point for the evolution of neurons.

Sakarya cautions that there could be another explanation. Sponges could be degenerate relics of a more advanced branch of animals, that stripped away their complexity in favour of life in the (very) slow lane. In this scenario, the flask cells are evolutionary remnants of neurons proper.

Nonetheless, under both scenarios, these findings strongly suggest that the common ancestor of all living animals already has an early working version of the PSD. This practically pre-adapted it for the evolution of nervous systems. With minimal additional evolutionary steps, this early scaffold could have been transformed into the functional synapses that drive our thoughts today. The ancestor was pre-adapted to a future with neurons.

It’s worth noting that this discovery was only made possible because the genome of Amphimedon has been fully sequenced. In an age where genome sequencing could start to be taken for granted, this drives home the importance of sequencing a wide variety of living things that represent crucial junctures in evolution.

Reference: Sakarya, Armstrong, Adamska, Adamski, Wang, Tidor, Degnan, Oakley & Kosik. 2007. A post-synaptic scaffold at the origin of the animal kingdom. PLOS One 6, e506: 1-7.

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Maternal hormone shuts down babies’ brain cells during birth
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Monkeys (and their neurons) are calculating statisticians

Using a simple psychological test, scientists have found that monkeys can use simple statistical calculations to make decisions. They even managed to catch individual neurons in the act of computing.

Say the word ‘statistician’ and most people might think of an intelligent but reclusive person, probably working in a darkened room and almost certainly wearing glasses. But a new study shows that a monkey in front of a monitor can make a reasonably good statistician too.

Rhesus macaques can compute statistics in a simple psychological task.Tianming Yang and Michael Shadlen from the University of Washington found that rhesus macaques can perform simple statistical calculations, and even watched their neurons doing it.

Psychologists often train animals to learn simple tasks, where the right choice earns them a reward and the wrong one leaves them empty-handed or punished. But real life, of course, is not like that.

Mostly, there are risks and probabilities in lieu of guarantees or right answers. Animals must weigh up the available information, often from multiple sources, and decide on the course of action most likely to work out in their favour.

A simple psychological test

Yang and Shadlen tested this decision-making ability in two rhesus macaques using a variation of the well-known weather prediction task used to test human volunteers. In the human version, people are shown a series of cards that represent various probabilities of good or bad weather. After some training, they are shown combinations and asked to predict the likely weather from these.

The monkeys had a slightly simpler task – they had to look at either a green or a red target. If they picked the right one (which changed from trial to trial), they were rewarded with a tasty drink. To help the monkeys choose, Yang and Shadlen showed them a series of shapes that represented the probability that the rewarding target was red or green.

For example, a square strongly indicated that the red target was the rewarding one, while a triangle strongly favoured the green one, and an hourglass only slightly favoured the green. The monkeys were shown four shapes out of a possible ten, and to get the right answer, they had to add up the probabilities indicated by these shapes.

Monkey see, monkey decide

Yang and Shadlen saw individual neurons performing computations.And that is exactly what they did. They learned to base their decisions on the combined probabilities of the four shapes, and chose the appropriate target. It did, however, take them a while to learn (or two months of training with over 130,000 trials to be exact). Any statisticians reading this don’t need to fear about being replaced by monkeys any time soon.

They weighed up the strength of the evidence too. When the shapes strongly suggested one colour, the monkeys almost always went with that colour. When the summed probability lay between the two extremes, they chose either target but still favoured the one indicated by the shapes.

With 715 different combinations of shapes, the experiment’s design makes it highly unlikely that the monkeys simply memorised the ‘answers’ for different mixes. And because the shapes only dealt in probabilities, it was still possible to choose the wrong target, even if the monkey strictly adhered to the shapes’ advice. They were clearly reasoning with probabilities, and in pretty subtle ways.

Calculating neurons

For their next trick, Yang and Shadlen visualised this reasoning directly by looking at 64 neurons in the monkeys’ lateral intraparietal area (LIP). This part of the brain is responsible for several higher functions like mathematical skills. Other studies have found that the LIP collects data from the visual cortex, and helps to process what the monkey sees.

Monkeys can calculate the sums of different probabilities.When the monkeys saw a shape, the activity of their LIP neurons was proportional to the probability indicated by that shape. As the four shapes were shown in sequence, the neurons altered their rate of firing to account for the new information. As the evidence was building up, the monkeys were busy doing sums in their heads. Yang and Shadlen were seeing arithmetic in action.

Of course, monkeys are living things and not fuzzy calculators, and they were not equally good at statistical reasoning. One was clearly better than the other, and Yang and Shadlen put this down to differences in their neurons.

Each neuron varies slightly in its typical firing rate, and summed together, these variations can lead to biases in how the monkeys deal with calculations. This explains why the monkeys sometimes did different things when shown the same combination of shapes.

Their confusion was particularly apparent when the shapes gave no strong inclination to pick one target or another. We can certainly relate to that – after all, it’s certainly harder to make a decision, when neither option seems particularly better than the other.

Yang and Shadlen believe that human brains use similar methods to make decisions. Cues about probabilities are funnelled into the brain’s control centres (like the LIP), which act like calculators powered by the firing of neurons.

Reference: Yang & Shadlen. 2007. Probabilistic reasoning by neurons. Nature (doi:10.1038/nature05852)

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Related posts on neuroscience:
Bats create spatial memories without making new brain cells
Simple sponges provide clues to origin of nervous system
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No new brain cells for you – settling the neurogenesis debate
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Bats create spatial memories without making new brain cells

Neurogenesis in the hippocampus is not necessarily a source of new spatial memories.In an earlier post, I wrote about a study which used carbon-dating to show that our brains are mostly stuck with the same neurons they are born with. After birth, neurogenesis – the manufacture of new neurons – is completely absent in most of the brain.

There are only two exceptions, where new neurons are made. The first is the olfactory bulb, which governs our sense of smell. The second, the hippocampus, is involved in spatial awareness and memory. Why these regions alone should produce fresh neurons is unclear.

For the hippocampus at least, scientists thought they had an answer – the fresh neurons play a role in spatial learning and memory. They could allow mammals to learn about new places, routes and directions.

But Imgard Amrein and colleagues from the University of Zurich have found evidence that disputes this idea. When he looked at the hippocampuses of some of the most accomplished mammal navigators, the bats, he found a startling lack of neurogenesis.


Bats need superb spatial awareness to effortlessly fly in three dimensions. Those that feed on fruit and nectar need especially good spatial memories, and indeed, their hippocampuses are relatively large compared to other mammals.

Bats are some of the best navigators among the mammals.Their memories allow them to remember where the tastiest or ripest food sources are. And they also remember the locations of plants they have recently visited so that they don’t arrive at restaurants with no stock.

Amrein searched for signs of new neurons in 12 species of bats using special antibodies. Some detected proteins that only appear when new cells are born. Others homed in on proteins used by newborn neurons when they migrate to new places.

As expected, these molecular trackers picked up new neurons in the olfactory bulb. But they found no neurogenesis at all in the hippocampus of 9 species, and only the faintest traces in the other three. Clearly, the bats don’t need new hippocampal neurons to learn where things are or to remember how to find them.

Flexibility vs consistency

While Amrein’s bats were few in number, they were also a diverse bunch. They hailed form different evolutionary groups and had diverse diets, territory sizes and ages. This makes it unlikely that these variations in these factors were secretly responsible the trends that Amrein saw.

Instead, he believes that the dearth of new neurons in bats reflects their relatively long lifespans. Humans, apes and monkeys are similarly long-lived, and we too have low levels of neurogenesis as adults.

In contrast, rats and other rodents have short and brutal lives. In order to avoid becoming food for a predator, their behaviour must be as flexible as possible. When threatened, their stream of new hippocampal neurons could allow them to rapidly plan an escape route or find new hiding places.

Bats, and certainly humans, have far fewer predators, and can afford to take things easier. In our long lives, fixed long-term mental maps are very useful and to produce them, we can sacrifice some flexibility in our spatial memories.

This may explain why people tend to rely on the same routes more and more as they age. Fortunately for us, bats show a similar trend. Their reliance on the same flight paths allows canny researchers to catch them in well-placed nets and study how their brains work.

More about bats: 
Moths mimic each others’ sounds to fool hungry bats
Bats: internal compasses and record-breaking tongues

More about neurogenesis:
No new brain cells for you – settling the neurogenesis debate

More about neurons:
Simple sponges provide clues to origin of nervous systems
Monkeys (and their neurons) are calculating statisticians
Non-coding DNA drove brain evolution by making nerve cells stickier
Maternal hormone shuts down babies’ brain cells during birth


Reference: Amrein, Dechmann, Winter & Lipp. 2007. Absent or Low Rate of Adult Neurogenesis in the Hippocampus of Bats (Chiroptera) PLoS ONE.

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