News Release

Mammalian-like hippocampal activity in a food-caching songbird

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Tufted titmice - tiny songbirds with exceptional memories - process spatial memory using mammalian-like neural mechanisms, researchers report. Food-caching birds like the tufted titmouse are extreme memory specialists and can remember the precise locations of thousands of hidden food stores in the environment. Because of this, they are often regarded as a textbook model of spatial memory and an iconic example of higher cognition in animals. Although spatial memory is observed widely among vertebrates, the hippocampus-like brain regions responsible for it are anatomically distinct between vertebrate clades. As a result, it's been widely assumed that non-mammals use fundamentally different neural mechanisms for memory. Using electrophysical recordings from freely behaving birds, Hannah Payne and colleagues analyzed neuronal activity in the hippocampus homolog of the tufted titmouse and zebra finch - bird species that do, and do not display food-caching behavior, respectively. Payne et al. found mammalian-like neural activity in the titmouse hippocampus, including sharp-wave ripples and anatomically organized place cells. However, compared to titmice, spatial activity was weaker and less abundant in the non-food-caching zebra finches. The findings suggest that neural mechanisms underlying spatial memory are similar between birds and mammals and conserved across widely divergent hippocampal brain circuits.


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