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European starling. Sleeping is known to help humans stabilize information and tasks learned during the preceding day

Sleeping is known to help humans stabilize information and tasks learned during the preceding day. Now, researchers have found that sleep has similar effects upon learning in starlings, a discovery that will open up future research into how the brain learns and preserves information.

The research, published January 13 in the Journal of Neuroscience, fills an important gap between human behavioral findings and animal experiments of how the brain changes after learning and sleep.

“We really wanted to behaviorally show that these types of sleep-dependent memory benefits are occurring in animals,” said Timothy Brawn, graduate student at the University of Chicago and lead author on the study. “What was remarkable was that the pattern here looks very similar to what we see in humans. There wasn’t anything that was terribly different.”

In order to survive, animals must be able to learn from experience, and understanding the biology of this process remains an open scientific question. Previous research has demonstrated that sleep plays in important role in vocal learning in birds, and is also important for stabilizing memories in humans.

In 2008, Brawn and co-authors Kimberly Fenn, Howard Nusbaum, and Daniel Margoliash found that a night’s sleep stabilized the skills of people learning to play a first-person shooter video game. That study built upon prior research from Fenn, Nusbaum and Margoliash in 2003 that found sleep helped college students retain perceptual learning of computer-generated speech.

But sleep-dependent consolidation had not been conclusively proven behaviorally in adult animals. So Brawn set out to replicate the findings of his human study in the starling, a bird known for its vocal production and listening skills.

Starlings were trained to discriminate between two five-second snippets of birdsong in a learning task called a go-nogo procedure. If they heard one song, the “go” stimulus, they would receive a food pellet after correctly poking their beak into a hole in their cage. If the other song, the “no-go” stimulus, was played, it signaled that the bird should not poke its beak in the hole, or else the lights in the cage were briefly shut off.

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