UT Southwestern researchers have identified a brain circuit crucial to learning and controlling language at a young age—a reportedly important discovery that addresses the causes of speech disorders.
UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute studied zebra finches to evaluate how the brain learns song. Researchers found “striking” similarities in how both songbirds and humans master language.
The study uncovered a network of neurons that aid communication between the motor and auditory regions of the songbird’s brain—a pathway where the motor cortex sends a copy of vocal commands to the part of the brain that receives sound. It is believed that, with this pathway, the songbird can compare what it hears itself singing to what it intended to sing. By disabling neurons in this pathway, researchers were able to inhibit the songbirds’ ability to learn a new song or change the timing and tempo of their songs.
Researchers hope to conduct similar studies—by mapping neural processes—to pinpoint specific genes disrupting vocal learning in patients with other neurodevelopmental communication disorders.
Dr. Todd Roberts, assistant professor of neuroscience at the O’Donnell Brain Institute, described the new study as revelatory. “Speech and language learning depend on our ability to evaluate how accurately we are producing the particular sounds associated with speech,” Roberts said in a statement. “This evaluation has long been thought to rely on close interactions between auditory and speech-related motor areas of the brain, but identification of specific brain pathways involved in this process has been challenging.”