Skip navigation
How Songbirds Can Sing a Different Tune

Narrator: This is Science Today. The basal ganglia is a part of the brain that's associated with motor control, cognition, emotions, and learning. Michael Brainard, an assistant professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco has been studying songbirds to gain a better insight into how the basal ganglia functions with so-called motor skill learning.

Brainard: The birds that we study sing basically one song and they learn that song during development much the way we learn speech and then they sing that same song over and over again for months or even years without changing it.

Narrator: But Brainard found that the songbirds, who are using the basal ganglia to perform these tasks, can be taught to subtly vary the songs that normally remain unchanged.

Brainard: By understanding the function of the basal ganglia in this specialized system, where we can study in detail the mechanisms involved in changing the behavior, we hope to gain insight into the general function of the basal ganglia, so that we can better understand what are the deficits associated with damage to the basal ganglia in diseases like Parkinson's and Huntington's and ultimately, devise technologies to replace that function in the absence of functioning neural tissue.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.