Using Birdsong to Study Memory

A simple birdsong may have much to teach us about how we think—or, more specifically, about how we remember things. This is the crux of a research project that has secured a prestigious SOMAS (Support of Mentors and their Students in the Neurosciences) Award for Carolyn Pytte (Psychology) and sophomore Shoshana Korman.

The two are studying the role of adult neurogenesis in long-term memory. New neurons (the cells that transmit information in the body via electrical and chemical signals) become incorporated into existing brain circuits throughout adulthood in all animals, including humans. While a great deal of research has focused on understanding how these new neurons affect new learning, nothing is known about how they affect memory.

Continuing over the summer and through the fall, Pytte and Korman will be investigating the potential relationship between the amount of new neurons added to a brain region that stores long-term auditory memory and the accuracy of memories over time. Koman will present their findings in November at the annual International Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. “The event,” says Pytte, “is the largest of its kind in the world, typically drawing more than 30,000 participants.”

The vehicle for their research is a common pet shop bird, the Zebra Finch. “Birds,” explains Pytte, “are the only terrestrial animals other than humans that learn their vocalizations. So, they’re the only model system for vocal learning. Baby birds have to be taught by their tutor, their father; whereas with apes and and other primates, it’s all genetically encoded.

“Birds store the memory of this learned vocalization in a region of the brain that undergoes a moderate amount of neuronal turnover,” she continues. “Among birds, Zebra Finches have a stable rate of neurogenesis. Also, they don’t change their songs; they have a very small song repertoire.”

For Korman, this experience may help cement her career objectives. A Macaulay Honors College student, she says, “I’m interested in becoming a doctor and going to medical school.”

Korman became intrigued with neuroscience after attending a presentation by Susan Croll (Psychology). “Neuroscience is a combination of psychology and biology, both of which I have an interest in,” says Koman. “I was thinking about a double major and neuroscience is essentially a double major.”

Korman learned of Pytte’s research work through another student working in her lab, Sara Wildstein, and began volunteering there.

“She’s very good, and very motivated, and very dedicated,” says Pytte of her research assistant. “I asked her if she would be willing to work very, very, very hard, because it’s intense and that’s what’s required. She said she’d love to.”

Pytte is the second QC faculty member to win the SOMAS award. Joshua Brumberg (Psychology) was a recipient in 2006, making QC one of only three institutions in the history of the award with two winners.

Pytte and Brumberg also recently received awards under QC’s revived UR/ME (Undergraduate Research and Mentoring Education) program.

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Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services