Scientists have found that understanding a songbird's strategy to develop an irresistible trill could have implications for rehabilitating people with neuromuscular diseases and injuries.
Young male Bengalese finches practice their boisterous mating song till they attain a perfect pitch but throughout their life, they continuously monitor their tune in the face of such factors as aging, hormone levels, muscular injuries, and illness.
Scientists at University of California - San Francisco studied this strategy of how one learns - and might relearn - fine motor skills when provided only simple reinforcement signals of success or failure.
The team found that male Bengalese finches learned to change the pitch of a single note by computing the average pitch of hundreds of what they perceived as successful performances of that note - when they avoided hearing the unpleasant sound.
They have to remember every slight change in pitch of a single syllable sung perhaps 500 times in a day.
"We were very surprised that the brain can direct so complex a behavioral change with such a simple type of computation," said Jonathan Charlesworth.
The finding suggests "it might be possible to guide a damaged nervous system to recovery using only a simple automated/computerized system that emits simple instructive signals," said Charlesworth.
"Given that the averaging rule was true even for subtle details of song, an automated therapeutic strategy could help people regain the intricate details of fine motor skills like playing the piano, articulating speech, or dancing."
The experiments indicate, he said, that "even the very subtle variations that you might have thought were irrelevant, such as our annoying inability to throw a dart or break open a billiards rack the same way each time, can play a crucial role in shaping how we learn."
The team hopes to find how neurons generate variation in behavior and keep precise track of performance, as well as compute the averaging calculation that underlies learning.
The study appears in Nature Neuroscience. (ANI)