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Songbirds Offer Clues to Understanding Motor Skills

Narrator:        This is Science Today. Researchers are studying songbirds to better understand how adult humans perform and retain highly practiced motor skills. Michael Brainard, an assistant professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, has been studying songbirds for a decade.

Brainard:        Songbirds, we call them model systems for studying general forms of vertebrate learning because they show similar kinds of learning to what humans exhibit when we learn speech.

Narrator:        Songbirds sing subtly different when singing to females than when they're singing alone, and Brainard says these findings suggest that this subtle variation has a purpose and contributes to the maintenance of motor skills.

Brainard:        It was actively introduced by a part of the brain. There's this so-called basal ganglia, which we have as well. And one of the messages about these experiments is the basal ganglia may be particularly important for this kind of learning in which variation is generated in order to figure out what actions give rise to better versus worse outcomes.

Narrator:        This study provides insights that may lead to maintaining and optimizing motor skills affected by aging or injury. For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.