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Will the Study of the Songbird Song System Help Us Understand Speech and Language in Humans?

Posted on Friday, February 23, 2018

Sami Friedrich, an ARCS scholar at OHSU, presented her research on the significance of the song system in young songbirds to an audience of ARCS Oregon members and guests. She explained that similar to the way in which we learn to speak at an early age by imitating our caretakers, young songbirds learn to sing by imitating the songs of their fathers. Underlying this amazing ability is a network of brain structures called the song system.

While much is known about the anatomy, connectivity, and physiology of the song system, we’re still largely in the dark regarding the molecular genetic factors that guide its development as young birds learn and refine their songs.

The goal of Sami’s work is to understand how gene regulation guides the development of these brain structures and changes in singing behavior. She is especially interested in genes that shift their expression patterns within song system structures over the course of song learning. By characterizing and manipulating the expression patterns of such genes, Sami hopes to gain insights into the genetic basis of how complex vocalizations are learned.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Sami expressed her appreciation for the ARCS Scholar Award:  "Unlike large granting agencies, ARCS does not make me feel as though I'm solely represented and evaluated by the science I do. Yes, I identify strongly as a scientist, but I'm also a Texan, a book-hoarder, a sister, and a woman. Building connections through the ARCS community has helped me feel acknowledged and supported as a multi-dimensional human being."

Sami's donors are Janis and Bob Harrison and Marilyn and Bob Ridgley.

Photo courtesy of Michael Coen, CoenFilms