Birds Overcome Brain Damage to Sing Again

Every year, more than 795,000 people experience having a stroke, often resulting in brain damage that impairs their ability to speak, walk, or perform tasks. Fortunately, in many cases, these abilities can be regained through physical therapy. With practice, our brains have remarkable abilities to rewire and repair themselves after damage.

Researchers in the laboratory of Carlos Lois, research professor of biology at Caltech, and affiliated faculty member with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, use small birds called zebra finches to study how brains rewire themselves to regain essential functionality after damage. In a new paper, they discover that zebra finches can reacquire the ability to sing after brain damage similar to stroke victims—but without practice.

“Imagine a pianist who suffers some kind of brain damage and is unable to play the piano,” Lois says. “But one day, they wake up and can suddenly play again. Somehow, their brain was able to rewire itself and access the ability to play without any practice. This is what we found in songbirds.”

The new study appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience on April 29.

The paper, titled “Unsupervised restoration of a complex learned behavior after large-scale neuronal perturbation.” appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience on April 29. The study’s lead authors are Bo Wang, senior postdoctoral scholar research associate in biology and biological engineering; former graduate student Zsofia Torok; and Alison Duffy of the University of Washington. Additional Caltech co-authors are former research technician Shelyn Wongso and former postdoctoral scholar Tarciso Velho.

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