Birdsong Could Offer Clues to Human Speech Disorders

Speech problems accompany several common neurological disorders, including Parkinson's disease, although the cause of these problems is not well-studied.
 
Julie Miller, an assistant professor in the Departments of Neuroscience and Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, has focused her attention on zebra finches for research into speech and language disorders, particularly those associated with Parkinson's.
 
Zebra finches provide an excellent model system for this kind of research, Miller said, in part because their songs are easy to study.
 
"Songbirds have specific regions in their brains that allow them to learn and produce song," she said. "We can study changes in those regions of their brain and link it to the song coming out of their beak."
 
Miller intends to use this information on birdsong production to search for the cause of brain-driven vocal disorders.
 
"My long-term dream is to develop better therapies by targeting gene mutations or circuit activity in the brain that lead to speech problems," said Miller, whose lab is partially funded by a grant from the Parkinson's and Movement Disorder Foundation. Miller also has received funding from the National Institutes of Health and a faculty seed grant from the Office for Research and Discovery.
 
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that two main types of treatment for Parkinson's exist: surgery and drug therapy. Deep brain stimulation is a type of surgery that is particularly effective at alleviating symptoms related to movement, but it does not help with speech problems.
 
Miller says the same is true of many drugs that address motor issues. While they effectively treat motor issues, they do not fix all of the speech issues.
 
"Although there is behavioral speech treatment for Parkinson's, researchers don't yet understand what changes in genes and in the brain cause these speech issues," she said.
 
This is where the zebra finches could help.
 
Not only do birds have similar speech development to humans, but they also share some important genes in brain regions involved in producing speech. This suggests that if Miller can understand how changes in the songbird's brain lead to changes in song, issues with human speech production should have similar causes.
 
"Finches are very much like us," Miller said. "For instance, in zebra finches, the males learn to sing by listening to their father, then babbling like a baby, just like in humans."
 
Miller is not the only researcher to study zebra finches as a model for human behavior. In fact, neuroscientists have developed a comprehensive literature about the zebra finch and its brain over the years.
 
"Since other people have already mapped out the important song regions of their brain, I don't have to reinvent the wheel," Miller says.
 
Her work draw upon this wealth of literature to shed light on some unanswered questions about Parkinson's.
 
Also, while Parkinson's is well-studied, the most extensive research focuses on movement — not speech.
 
"Scientists still don't have a good understanding of how changes in the brain can lead to speech problems," Miller said. "In my lab, I want to know what's happening in the brain circuits that's leading to these issues."
 
Although the lab is still in its early stages, Miller hopes it eventually will open the door to better treatment for the vocal and speech issues associated with Parkinson's and related disorders.
 
"We're just at the beginning, but I'm very excited," she said.

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