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Scientists identify brain area responsible for bird smarts

Nov. 28, 2013
Courtesy of the Uni­vers­ity of Tübin­gen
and World Science staff

A por­tion of the bird brain with no direct coun­ter­part in hu­mans may be re­spon­si­ble for some of birds’ stra­te­gic, in­tel­li­gent be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

In a new stu­dy, the re­search­ers stud­ied crows, which be­long to a rel­a­tively in­tel­li­gent family of birds known as cor­vids that al­so in­clude ravens and mag­pies. A brain re­gion known as the ni­do­pal­lium cau­do­lat­er­ale con­trols crows’ be­hav­ior in a sim­ple com­put­er game that they were taught us­ing treats as a re­ward, the sci­en­tists said.

In a new stu­dy, re­search­ers stud­ied crows, which be­long to a rel­a­tively in­tel­li­gent family of birds known as cor­vids that al­so in­clude ravens and mag­pies. A brain re­gion known as the ni­do­pal­lium cau­do­lat­er­ale con­trols crows’ be­hav­ior in a sim­ple com­put­er game that they were taught us­ing treats as a re­ward, the sci­en­tists said. (Im­age cour­tesy U.S. FWS)


Crows are no bird-brains. They make and use tools, can re­mem­ber large num­bers of feed­ing sites, and plan their so­cial be­hav­ior ac­cord­ing to what oth­er mem­bers of their group do. This sharp in­tel­li­gence arises de­spite the fact that birds’ brains are built in a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent way from those of mam­mals.

Neuro­bi­ol­o­gists Le­na Veit and An­dre­as Nie­der at the Uni­vers­ity of Tü­bin­gen in Ger­ma­ny trained crows to do mem­o­ry tests on a com­put­er. 

The birds were shown an im­age and had to re­mem­ber it. Shortly af­ter­wards, they had to choose one of two im­ages on a tou­ch screen with their beaks based on a switch­ing of be­hav­ioral rules. One of the test im­ages was iden­ti­cal to the first im­age, the oth­er dif­fer­ent. Some­times the rule was to choose the same im­age, and some­times it was to pick the dif­fer­ent one. The crows were able to do both tasks and to switch be­tween them as ap­pro­pri­ate.

That demon­strates a lev­el of con­centra­t­ion and men­tal flex­i­bil­ity that few an­i­mal spe­cies can muster—and which is an ef­fort even for hu­mans, the re­search­ers said.

The crows were quickly able to do these tasks even with new sets of im­ages, they added. The sci­en­tists saw brain cell ac­ti­vity mean­while in the nidopal­lium cau­dolat­erale, a brain re­gion as­so­ci­at­ed with the high­est lev­els of cog­ni­tion in birds. One group of nerve cells in the brain be­came ac­tive ex­clu­sively when the crows had to choose the same im­age; anoth­er group of cells al­ways re­sponded when they were op­er­at­ing on the “dif­fer­ent im­age” rule. By watch­ing this ac­ti­vity, the re­search­ers were of­ten able to pre­dict which rule the crow was fol­low­ing even be­fore it made its choice.

The nidopal­lium has no di­rect coun­ter­part in hu­mans, al­though it is be­lieved to have si­m­i­lar­i­ties to a part of a hu­man brain re­gion known as the au­di­to­ry cor­tex.

The stu­dy, pub­lished in the lat­est is­sue of the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­nica­t­ions, pro­vides valua­ble in­sights in­to the “par­al­lel evo­lu­tion” of in­tel­li­gent be­hav­ior, the sci­en­tists said. “Many func­tions are real­ized dif­fer­ently in birds be­cause a long ev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry sep­a­rates us from these di­rect de­scen­dants of the di­no­saurs,” said Veit. “This means that bird brains can show us an al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion out of how in­tel­li­gent be­hav­ior is pro­duced with a dif­fer­ent anato­my.” Crows and pri­ma­tes, the group that in­cludes hu­mans, have dif­fer­ent brains, but the cells reg­u­lat­ing decision-making are very sim­i­lar, she went on.

This illustrates a gen­er­al prin­ci­ple that has re-emerged through­out ev­o­lu­tion, the re­search­ers said. “Just as we can draw val­id con­clu­sions on aer­o­dy­namics from a com­par­i­son of the very dif­fer­ently con­structed wings of birds and bats, here we are able to draw con­clu­sions about how the brain works by in­ves­ti­gat­ing the func­tion­al si­m­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences of the rel­e­vant brain ar­eas in avi­an and mam­ma­li­an brains,” said Nieder.


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A portion of the bird brain with no clear counterpart in humans may be responsible for some of birds’ strategic, intelligent behavior, according to scientists. In a new study, the researchers studied crows, which belong to a relatively intelligent family of birds known as corvids that also include ravens and magpies. A brain region known as the nidopallium caudolaterale controls crows’ behavior in a simple computer game that they were taught using treats as a reward, the scientists said. Crows are no bird-brains. They make and use tools, can remember large numbers of feeding sites, and plan their social behavior according to what other members of their group do. This sharp intelligence arises despite the fact that birds’ brains are built in a fundamentally different way from those of mammals. Neurobiologists Lena Veit und Andreas at the Nieder University of Tübingen in Germany trained crows to do memory tests on a computer. The crows were shown an image and had to remember it. Shortly afterwards, they had to choose one of two images on a touch screen with their beaks based on a switching of behavioral rules. One of the test images was identical to the first image, the other different. Sometimes the rule was to choose the same image, and sometimes it was to pick the different one. The crows were able to do both tasks and to switch between them as appropriate. That demonstrates a level of concentration and mental flexibility that few animal species can muster—and which is an effort even for humans, the researchers said. The crows were quickly able to do these tasks even with new sets of images, they added. The scientists saw brain cell activity meanwhile in the nidopallium caudolaterale, a brain region associated with the highest levels of cognition in birds. One group of nerve cells in the brain became active exclusively when the crows had to choose the same image; another group of cells always responded when they were operating on the “different image” rule. By watching this activity, the researchers were often able to predict which rule the crow was following even before it made its choice. The nidopallium has no direct counterpart in humans, although it is believed to have similarities to a part of a human brain region known as the auditory cortex. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications, provides valuable insights into the “parallel evolution” of intelligent behavior, the scientists said. “Many functions are realized differently in birds because a long evolutionary history separates us from these direct descendants of the dinosaurs,” said Veit. “This means that bird brains can show us an alternative solution out of how intelligent behavior is produced with a different anatomy.” Crows and primates, the group that includes humans, have different brains, but the cells regulating decision-making are very similar. They represent a general principle, which has re-emerged throughout the history of evolution. “Just as we can draw valid conclusions on aerodynamics from a comparison of the very differently constructed wings of birds and bats, here we are able to draw conclusions about how the brain works by investigating the functional similarities and differences of the relevant brain areas in avian and mammalian brains,” said Nieder.