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NOVA scienceNOW: Bird Brains

Program Overview


Scientists discuss speech-processing studies that show similarities in brain activity when birds learn to make their calls and humans learn to talk.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • introduces a leading expert on birdsong who believes the key to understanding human speech lies in understanding how birds learn their songs.

  • states that both birds and humans have sophisticated circuitry in brain regions that control learned vocal behavior.

  • reports that birds learn to sing in a way that is similar to how humans learn to speak. Early bird song is unstructured, like a baby's babbling. This stage is followed by mimicking adult sounds.

  • introduces scientists who study speech processing in zebra finches that stutter. They compare magnetic resonance images of speech-activation patterns of stuttering and non-stuttering zebra finches. These patterns are similar to ones seen between human stutterers and non-stutterers.

  • reports on genetic studies of a family who suffered from a rare speech disorder—a single gene mutation in the FOXP2 gene was the cause. It was named the language gene.

  • reveals that scientists isolated the FOXP2 gene in birds and discovered that it influences the way a bird learns to sing. The level of the FOXP2 gene product increases or decreases depending upon whether song learning is occurring. When researchers reduced the level of FOXP2 product, the birds had a reduced capacity to learn song.

  • points out that FOXP2 is the only gene known to be essential for normal speech development in humans and songbirds, and that this gene is present in most organisms.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Bird Brains
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