Scientists implant artificial memory into birds paving the way for much more

The film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger has become a reality but with birds not people. Scientists have found a way to implant into birds an artificial memory regarding their song. They did the experiment with zebra finches. This species of Australian bird learn their song from their fathers which is used in courtship and in territorial disputes. The song is loud and boisterous with rhythmic, beeping sounds.

Zebra finches
Zebra Finches – Male (right) and female (left). Photo: Roy Beckham.

The team at the University of Texas Southwestern used an emerging practice called ‘optogenetics’ to implant a false memory into the birds’ brains. They did this by creating a small window in their skull (this sounds horrendous by the way) which allowed light to penetrate. Through that window they shone pulses of light using fibre-optic cables onto the brain cells. The brain cells had been genetically modified to respond to illumination.

When the light pulses were of short duration the birds developed songs with correspondingly short syllables. Longer pulses of light resulted in longer syllables. A neuroscientist on the team, Todd Roberts, from the university’s O’Donnell Brain Institute, said:

“This is the first time we have confirmed brain regions that encode behavioural-goal memories [which] guide us when we want to imitate anything from speech to learning the piano. The findings enabled us to implant these memories and guide the learning of their song.”

Their experiment only dealt with a part of the “musical manual” that zebra finches would normally learn from their father. It excluded aspects of sound such as pitch and melody.

The research is published in Science. Zebra finches share a similar vocal development process as humans which is why they were chosen.

The scientists believe that their achievement is significant as it might pave the way for a search to identify more brain circuits influencing other aspects of vocalisation. They think they could teach a bird to sing its complete song without any interaction from its father.

“Our research is providing strong clues were to look for more insight on neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Comment: my first thought is how will this be used in the future by the military! Perhaps I have been watching too many box sets on Netflix. It does seem ideal for programing people and turning them into robots. Doesn’t the film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind? That was about implanting false memories into people’s brains. Here we go. The future looks dangerous.

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