Oregon [US], November 21 (ANI): According to a new study, there are specialized cells within the neural circuitry that cause complex learning in songbirds and have a compelling resemblance to a type of neural cell as well which leads to the development of fine motor skills in the cortex of the human brain.
This research by the scientists at Oregon Health and Science University has been published in the 'Nature Communications Journal'.
"These are the properties you need if you want to have a male song that's precise and distinct so the female can choose which bird she wants to mate with," said co-senior author Henrique von Gersdorff, PhD, senior scientist at the OHSU Vollum Institute.
"You need a highly specialized brain to produce this," he added.
Benjamin Zemel, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at OHSU, is the lead author and conducted most of the challenging electrophysiology work involved in using thin brain slices and single-cell recording.
The study revealed that a particular group of neurons express a set of genes that modulated sodium ion channel proteins. These ion channels generated electrical signals used for communication between cells in the nervous system. In this case, the assemblage enabled neurons to fire repetitive spikes - known as action potentials - at extremely high speeds and frequencies as the bird sang.
The study described "ultrafast spikes" that only lasted 0.2 milliseconds - compared with most action potential spikes that lasted a millisecond or more.
Further, the findings suggested new avenues for understanding the mechanism in various aspects of human behaviour and development that involved fine motor control.
Researchers said that the assemblage of neurons and ion channels involved in the male zebra finch's singing closely resembled a similar assemblage of neurons known as Betz cells in the primary motor cortex of the human brain.
Among the largest known brain cells in humans, Betz cells have long and thick axons that can propagate spikes at very high velocities and frequencies. As such, they are thought to be important for fine motor skills involving hands, feet, fingers and wrists.
"Think of a piano player," said co-senior author Claudio Mello, M.D., PhD, professor of behavioural neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine.
"They're thinking so fast, they have to rely on memories and actions that are learned and stored. Playing the guitar is the same thing," Mello added.
Mello, a behavioural neuroscientist who has relied on the zebra finch as an animal model, has known Von Gersdorff socially for 20 years. Over lunch one day in the cafeteria, Mello popped open his laptop and showed a brain image of a young male zebra finch at an age just before he could sing, followed by a second image revealing a telltale subunit of proteins that had materialized after the bird was old enough to begin singing.
"Something remarkable was happening in a period of just a few days," said von Gersdorff, an expert in electrophysiology and the biophysics of neurons.
"I said, this is exactly the protein we've been studying in the rodent auditory system. It promotes high-frequency spiking," he added
Mello said that the new study deepens scientific understanding of the mechanism involved in learning fine motor skills.
"This is a very important model, and we think this new study has broad potential," he said.
The fact that these same motor circuit properties are shared by species that diverged more than 300 million years ago speaks to the strength of the discovery, von Gersdorff and Mello said. Researchers said the neuronal properties they discovered in the male zebra finch may become optimized for speed and precision through convergent evolution.
It also suggested mechanisms that may be involved when the connection goes awry. Von Gersdorff said that it's possible that some gene mutations affecting these Betz cells may cause relatively mild effects such as stuttering, which can be overcome by learning, whereas other mutations could have more pronounced effects, such as those involved in progressive disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. (ANI)