Neuroscience for Bird Brains

An unconventional frontier for understanding social behavior

Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
How intellectual initiatives form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost


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I study passerine behavioral neuroendocrinology, which translates from the jargon to “bird brains”—specifically songbird brains, hormones, and behavior. My work lies at the intersection of many different fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. I’ve never quite fit neatly into any of those categories, though, and it turns out that cutting across them is not an easy task. Suffice it to say I’m the only neuroscientist in town who has to wait until migration season for her subjects to arrive.

To me, what’s most interesting about animals—indeed, about life—is social behavior, or how we manage our relationships with other animals of our species. From love and attachment to violence and aggression, each of these phenomena will someday be explained by looking at brain mechanisms. Songbirds make ideal models for studying the neural bases of social behaviors, especially communication, because field ornithologists and laypersons alike have scrutinized their behavior for many decades and in thousands of species.

The existing database on avian social behavior is unparalleled. For example, for several thousand species, we know whether they defend territories or live close together in groups, whether they mate for life or only during chance encounters, whether they migrate long distances or stay put. We have high-quality recordings of their vocalizations and have described geographic variations in their songs. No other group of animals, invertebrate or vertebrate, has been studied with such passion and intensity. How does the brain orchestrate these well-studied behaviors?

We actually know almost nothing about the mechanisms underlying most of them, largely because ornithologists are usually not neuroscientists. Some of them may ask why birds benefit from behaving a certain way, but they don’t ask how the brain creates behavior. The scientists who do study brain mechanisms tend to study mice or rats, or even ferrets. It’s not hard to understand why. If you were going to spend millions developing sophisticated techniques that would work in only a few species, would you develop them in animals you have to trap outdoors, or in a species you could have delivered to your door by making a phone call? Would you choose a species you’d have to take from your Aunt Edna’s bird feeder, or one she would rather do without?

Neuroscience as a whole has proceeded in a logical direction. But let’s face it: not many naturalists or little old ladies have aimed their binoculars at mice and then written twelve volumes about what they saw them do. Of course, we do know a respectable amount about rodent social behavior, but it’s harder to study because it happens at night, often underground or in garbage cans. The depth of our knowledge on social behavior across rodent species doesn’t compare to what we know about songbirds. So whether you call it savvy or masochistic, a few neuroscientists such as myself are attempting to take advantage of the huge diversity of avian behaviors.

In my lab, we have just completed a study of white-throated sparrows, which occur in two “morphs”: one defends its territory more aggressively and cheats on its mate more often, and the other is a better parent. We have found that the aggressive cheaters have more of a peptide called vasopressin in some parts of their brain than the better parents do, and the better parents have more of another peptide thought to be involved in the regulation of parental behaviors such as incubation. It’s a small step, but along with a handful of other investigators, we are on our way to studying comparative behavioral neuroscience in species with volumes and volumes about their social behavior already on the shelf.

Studying an unconventional model not only creates practical challenges, but it also makes my work seem all the more inaccessible to those outside my field. All of us in academia, especially those engaging in pursuits as esoteric as studying bird brains, have at one point or another struggled to explain our interests to our hairdresser, our dentist, or our Aunt Edna. Like many of us, I am usually met with one of two responses—the blank stare or the burst of laughter. Invariably what follows is what I affectionately call “The Question,” which of course is some variant of, How will studying bird brains help people?

After nearly twenty years in this field, I have not yet come up with a canned answer for Aunt Edna. Two years ago, a colleague who witnessed me struggle with my answer to The Question advised me later, “Just say Alzheimer’s. Satisfies them every time.” Citing vaguely inaccurate clinical applications for my own work, however, has always made me oddly uncomfortable. I would hope that people could understand my motivations without having them framed in that context. To me, the brain is a frontier, like outer space or the ocean floor. It is mysterious yet decipherable, frustratingly inaccessible yet inviting. It challenges us to understand it, and we try—practical applications notwithstanding—because we can.

Earlier this year, Dr. Miranda Lim and her colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry were able to increase monogamous (or “pair bonding”) behavior in a species of vole that normally does not bond much at all by making one small adjustment: her voles expressed vasopressin binding sites in a pattern similar to a related but monogamous species of vole. This elegant, amazing experiment actually showed, in part, how the brain encodes behavior. Even this study, however, loses its luster when people start asking The Question. The media interpreted the findings as a step toward a treatment for human philandering. Some articles even suggested that Dr. Lim is working on a “commitment pill” for women to slip into a boyfriend’s drink. These interpretations do serious disservice to Dr. Lim’s work and basic science in general. The journalists I’ve talked to agree, but they insist that their articles could not be published without these claims—nobody would care. Has the public really been fooled into believing that all biological research should produce marketable products? Is it not enough to have taken a major step toward understanding ourselves?

Not everyone in my field struggles with The Question. The study of bird brains has produced discoveries that have been and will be developed into marketable products and treatments for disease. For example, unlike us, birds can regenerate the delicate sound receptors inside the ear if they become damaged by loud noise. Unlike us, they can replace dying brain cells widely throughout the brain. Like us, they learn their vocalizations—a talent rare among nonhuman animals. Studying each of these phenomena will lead us to successful treatments for nervous system damage after injury or stroke.

My own research, however, focuses on phenomena just as fascinating. If Aunt Edna understands why we sent people to the moon and a robot to Mars, then my interest in how social behavior is encoded in the brain shouldn’t be such a stretch. I just need to work harder on my answer to The Question. But don’t expect a pill anytime soon.