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Stuttering birds offer us a glimpse into human speech

Aspen Times Staff Report

Language acquisition has long been a poorly understood phenomenon. And when neurologist Dr. David Rosenfield approached the problem, he decided to start with an unlikely model – stuttering songbirds.

Rosenfield discovered that a small portion (about 7 percent) of Zebra Finches duplicate song syllables – much as human stutterers repeat or get hung up on primary consonants. And because those stuttering birds enable direct study of human stutterers, they also provide insight into the development of language in general.

Rosenfield will share some of what he discovered during a lecture Thursday at Aspen’s Given Institute. His free lecture, “The Songs of Science: How Bird Songs Teach Us About Human Speech,” will begin at 6 p.m. following a 5:30 p.m. reception. Seating is limited to 200 on a first-come, first-served basis.

“This presentation is for anyone who is interested in how the brain learns, as well as what it learns,” said Rosenfield.

In the presentation, he’ll explain the path he’s taken toward solving one of mankind’s greatest neurological mysteries: how we speak. During his studies, he first looked for a situation where the language process was only slightly out of whack. He found it in stutterers.

Stuttering is recorded in every human society and in every language, and has been noted in historical documents such as the Bible, the Koran, and ancient Mesopotamian writings. The prevalence of stuttering throughout the human experience indicates that it is not an emotional problem, but is, at least in part, physiological.

Finding out where the flaw lies is difficult in human subjects, however. Rosenfield used such techniques as genetic profiling and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in his search. His work has been hailed as a great advance in understanding the processes behind human language acquisition.

“As we model the system, it becomes obvious that the brain produces stuttering’s disfluency,” says Rosenfield. “Specifically, the errors are produced in the motor components of speech.”

Pinpointing malfunctions in the birds’ brains may lead to treatments of human neurological disorders.

“Animals do not `speak,’ ” he said. “But they communicate, and we learn to speak just as a finch learns its song.”

Like humans, they learn their communication skills from adults, and have a distinct window of time in which to learn them. “The Zebra Finch has to be exposed to adult songs during a crucial time of brain development, before it’s 90 to 100 days old.”

Rosenfield’s presentation is the second of five in the Given Institute’s winter lecture series.

The Given Institute offers a full schedule of public lectures, as well as professional medical seminars and workshops throughout the year. The public presentations are offered as an opportunity for local citizens and visitors to interact with and benefit from the visiting faculty.

For more information, contact the Given Institute at 100 East Francis St.; by phone at 925-1057; or or visit its Web site at http://www.giveninstitutute.org


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