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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Rested Minstrel

Air Date: Week of February 18, 2005

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on songbirds that sing better with a little sleep.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Just ahead: A lawsuit to force the Bush administration to consider the effects of climate change when it hands out foreign aid comes closer to its day in court. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: You've heard the saying: "practice makes perfect." But a lesson from the animal kingdom suggests sleep could be the real secret to success.

A team of behavioral neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island looked at how sleep affects song learning in zebra finches. Twelve young male finches learned to imitate recorded adult bird songs over several months. Then, researchers compared the birds' song-learning ability after various cycles of sleep – a regular 12 hours of night sleep, versus two to three hours of induced afternoon naps.

Scientists found that in both cases, birds displayed similar learning curves. That is, each time the finches woke up, they were dramatically worse singers than before they fell asleep. But after an intense round of rehearsals, the birds showed marked improvement from the day before. One explanation could be that finches use the time right after waking to experiment with different vocal patterns. A little shut-eye ultimately helps them retrieve what they learned the day before.

Scientists hypothesize that sleep is more than just a dormant phase – and that bird brains may display similar nerve patterns while asleep, as they do when awake – sort of an extension of learning. In the future, researchers plan to look at these same sleep effects in human infants.

That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Either/Orchestra "Pas de trois" the brunt (Accurate Records, 1994)]

 

 

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