Mice Can Sing, And Are Capable Of Vocal Learning, Contradicting 60 Year Assumption

New research has shown that male mice are able to match the pitch of other singing males’, in the ultrasonic range that they communicate in. The research also underlines the fact that mice “have certain brain features, somewhat similar to humans and song-learning birds, which they may use to change their sounds.”

This discovery directly contradicts the 60-year-old assumption that mice do not possess any vocal learning traits at all.

“We are claiming that mice have limited versions of the brain and behavior traits for vocal learning that are found in humans for learning speech and in birds for learning song,” said Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.

“If we’re not wrong, these findings will be a big boost to scientists studying diseases like autism and anxiety disorders,” said Jarvis, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “The researchers who use mouse models of the vocal communication effects of these diseases will finally know the brain system that controls the mice’s vocalizations.”

These findings are likely to be very controversial because they so completely contradict a very long-held assumption about the abilities of mice to vocalize. “His research suggests the vocal communication pathways in mice brains are more similar to those in human brains than to sound-making circuits in the brains of chimpanzees and other non-human primates. The results also contradict two recent studies suggesting mice do not match pitch or have deafness-induced vocalization changes.”

“This is a very important study with great findings,” said Kurt Hammerschmidt, an expert in vocal communication at the German Primate Center who was not involved in the study. He suggests that if the research is accurate then mice could become useful as a model to study the genetic foundation of ‘language.’

“Jarvis, his former graduate student Gustavo Arriaga, and a colleague from Tulane University tested male mice for vocal learning traits as part of a larger project to study speech evolution in humans. Vocal learning appears to be unique to humans, songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds and scientists define it with five features related to brain structure and behavior.”

Because these features have never been observed by researchers in any other animals, “I almost expected every experiment in mice to fail,” Arriaga said.

“In the study, funded by HHMI, NSF and NIH, Arriaga first used gene expression markers, which lit up neurons in the motor cortex of the mice’s brain as they sang. Arriaga then damaged these song-specific neurons in the motor cortex and observed that the mice couldn’t keep their songs on pitch or repeat them as consistently, which also happened when the mice became deaf.”

“Arriaga also used an injectable tracer, which mapped the signals controlling song as they moved from the neurons in the motor cortex to those in the brainstem and then to the muscles in the larynx.”

“This direct projection from the mice’s forebrain to the brainstem and muscles was the biggest surprise,” Jarvis said.

“The evidence of direct projection from these motor cortex regions is a great finding,” Hammerschmidt said. “And I think it is important to try to understand whether these projections are really able to work in a similar way like such projections known in birds and humans.”

“The question is whether mice can learn a vocalization the way other species do. The researchers found that when two male mice were placed in the same cage with a female, the males’ pitch began to converge after seven to eight weeks. Arriaga and Jarvis tested 24 male mice and did the experiment twice to confirm the result.”

Hammerschmidt remains somewhat skeptical. Jarvis and Arriaga’s “pitch convergence story is less convincing,” he said. “Scientists have observed pitch convergences in non-vocal learners and the number of tested animals in this study could be too low to determine whether the discovered effect is reliable,” he said.

“Jarvis disagrees, but added that more work does need to be done to know if mice can learn other features of vocalizations or if their learning is limited to just pitch.”

“Our results show that mice have the five features scientists associate with vocal learning. In mice, they don’t exist at the advanced levels found in humans and song-learning birds, but they also are not completely absent as commonly assumed,” he said.

The research team is now ‘investigating’ mouse brains, looking specifically for the genes that control the brain circuits for vocal behavior. “So far, these genes have only been found in songbirds and humans but, based on these results, could be in mice too,” Jarvis said.

Clips of the mouse songs are available in the PLoS article.

The research was just published October 10th in the journal PLOS ONE and also described further in a review article in Brain and Language.

Source: Duke University

Image Credits: Gustavo Arriaga and Erich Jarvis; Lab Mouse via Wikimedia Commons

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