Owl Finding a Hoot for Brain Researchers

The birds link up sight with sound, just as humans do, researchers say

THURSDAY, Jan. 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Owls just got a little wiser: Scientists say they've detected a link between sight and sound in the bird's brain, a phenomenon previously reported only in primates.

This finding, published in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Nature, also advances knowledge about how the brain is able to sort out incoming sensory information.

"What our experiment demonstrates is a fundamental principle of how the brain pays attention. The promise here is that because we are doing this in owls, we can get at the mechanisms of how this works," study senior author Eric Knudsen, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

In their research with barn owls, Knudsen and a colleague concluded that the circuits in the brain that process sounds are strongly influenced by the circuits that control where the animal is looking -- the direction of gaze.

"The ability to hear and the direction of gaze aren't necessarily linked," study first author and postdoctoral scholar Daniel Winkowski noted in a prepared statement. He explained that sounds originating from any direction don't usually require visualization to be heard.

But, he said, "It's exciting to find that the circuits in the brain that control gaze direction affect how the brain processes auditory information," Winkowski said.

The finding that this occurs in owls as well as primates means there are many more opportunities for research in different kinds of animals.

"This paper opens the floodgates for studying a wide range of species. The fundamental mechanisms are probably going to be the same in all vertebrates, as even frogs and fish have gaze control," Knudsen said.

Learning more about brain mechanisms that control attention may help improve scientists' understanding of human attention and learning disorders, as well as schizophrenia, the researchers said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about learning disabilities.

SOURCE: Stanford University, news release, Jan. 18, 2006
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