Youngsters learn many important behaviors by imitating adults. But young learners are selective in who they copy, and scientists don't understand how they choose the right teacher. Young male zebra finches must learn to copy the song of an adult tutor in order to ultimately attract a mate. Researchers already knew that juveniles don't copy songs played through a loudspeaker or sung by other species of birds. Now, findings by National Science Foundation-funded scientists show how the juvenile birds identify the right teacher. The study reveals that being near a singing tutor activates connections between a social area of the young bird's brain and the part of the brain responsible for the juvenile's ability to sing. If those connections aren't activated, a young finch fails to copy the tutor's song. The researchers focused their work on two areas of the finch's brain. The first is the part of the cortex essential for singing and is a bit like Broca's area in the human brain, which is essential to speech. The second is a pinhead-sized region known as the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, that contains a group of nerve cells that release dopamine and in mice, respond to other mice. In the finch, these dopamine-secreting PAG neurons send long fibers that end in the song cortex.
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