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A little bird tells us about motor skills

Narrator: This is Science Today. Why is it that songbirds have become a popular system for trying to understand how humans learn motor skills? Michael Brainard, an assistant professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco says it's because birds learn their songs by listening to themselves practice and use their auditory feedback to gradually get better.

Brainard: This kind of learning, so-called motor skill learning, is really ubiquitous for humans. It's something that we all do when we learn how to, well - even things as simple as learning to walk would be an example of a motor skill that's acquired in part by practice during development and can take quite a while to develop skill at that.

Narrator: Brainard discovered that variability present when birds sang alone was actively introduced by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which humans have as well.

Brainard: Its function in the normal brain is poorly understood, though it's broadly thought to be involved in motor control and motor learning. So, our experiments were driven by a desire to understand that the role of the basal ganglia in this kind of learning are and so we're now carrying out additional experiments to ask how directly involved the basal ganglia are in this form of learning.

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