Neurobiologist diverges from dance to science

For many modern musical artists, moving from the production of songs to the art of dance is not too far of a stretch. But for one neurobiologist, the most logical path was to leave behind years of dance and to pursue scientific studies of songbirds.

Dr. Erich Jarvis, an associate professor at the Duke University Medical Center Department of Neurobiology, presented a lecture entitled “Brain Evolution: How Birds and Human Learn to Sing and Talk” at the Karlovitz Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 23. The Honors Program and the College of Sciences co-sponsored this event.

Jarvis spent his elementary school years wanting to be a magician and his high school years hoping to pursue a career in dance in Harlem, N.Y. However, days before his high school graduation, he chose to go to college instead of joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“I realized I would have a bigger impact on the world if I went to college,” Jarvis said of his decision to pursue what was otherwise his “Plan B.”

After attending Hunter College and Rockefeller University for his undergraduate and postgraduate studies, Jarvis finally settled on Duke University to study vocal learning, particularly in song birds. This was because Jarvis was intrigued by different organisms’ abilities to create complex forms of expression.

Vocal learning, which is the ability to learn to produce specific sounds, is rare, only known in five groups of mammals and three species of birds. Among primates alone, only humans have the trait of vocal learning.
As an example of the trait, Jarvis showed a video of an African gray parrot that could actively communicate with a human, eventually gaining the ability to count from zero to seven in the English language.

Jarvis noted that vocal learning is different from auditory learning. For example, through auditory learning, dogs can understand and obey the commands “sit” in English; “sientese” in Spanish; and “osuwari” in Japanese. However, because they lack vocal learning skills, dogs cannot create these same sounds by any vocal means of their own.

Associated with vocal learning is motor learning, as Jarvis showed in a video of “Snowball,” a cockatoo who learned to dance to the song “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” by the Backstreet Boys. The cockatoo could tap out the beats of the song and moved his wings in a fashion similar to the movements of the teens he was raised by.

Jarvis has also studied the brain patterns of birds as they produce certain types of sounds. To further explain the motor abilities, Jarvis noted that the regions of birds’ brains that control motor abilities surround the “song nuclei.”

“The more [the birds] sing, the more gene expression [there is] in ‘song nuclei,’” Jarvis said of observations of birds’ nervous systems, noting that specific regions of the brain are involved in vocal learning.

Vocal learning pathways, vocal production learning and auditory learning and three traits found in vocal learners only. Parrots have even more structures to enable imitation.

To parallel these abilities to humans, Jarvis considers the pathways found in both groups of birds and mammals to be analogous, yet not homologous, structures.

Jarvis indicated that vocal learners have independently evolved repetitive gene sequences that allow for said ability.

“Vocal learners like to ‘talk’ a lot and thus need to protect neurons,” Jarvis said, noting that the human brain consumes 25 percent of one’s daily sugar intake just for vocal communication.

The “cultural” aspect of human and bird vocal learning is also similar. Just as humans pass on different styles of gesturing associated with communication, often based on cultures, birds do the same from generation to generation.

Beyond the molecular biology behind the research is Jarvis’s research team. Jarvis believes that his group at Duke is unique because it brings together multiple backgrounds in both science and cultural origin. Jarvis considers it important to come together to merge the multitude of ideas.


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