Bird Brains and Human Brains Share Similar Memory Limits
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To do this, the Bochum scientists observed crows at the Faculty of Psychology in Bochum. They tested the birds’ working memory with an exercise originally developed for macaque monkeys. “We taught the crows to look at a screen and memorise a different number of coloured squares there,” explains Hahn. “After a pause with one second of black screen, we presented them the squares on the screen again, but slightly different. The birds were now tasked with figuring out which square had changed.”
While the crows performed the task, the scientists recorded neuron activity in an area of the brain corresponding to the prefrontal cortex – the central hub of cognition in mammals. “The studies showed that the neurons in the crows’ brains responded to the changing colours in virtually the same way as the neurons in monkeys,” analyses Rose. Moreover, the scientists noticed that increasing the number of items the crows had to remember altered the amount of information individual neurons encoded to the same degree that had been previously observed in monkeys.
Same mechanisms despite different brain architecture
Lukas Hahn: “The similarities between the distantly related bird and mammalian species confirm pre-existing core ideas about the limits of working memory. Moreover, they suggest that birds and apes share the same core mechanisms and limits of working memory despite their different brain architecture.” And Hahn already has ideas for a follow-up project in mind, namely investigating how different regions of the birds’ brains process working memory signals with each other. “That would be an exciting future question to uncover more neural bases of cognition in the avian brain.”
Hahn LA, Balakhonov D, Fongaro E, Nieder A, Rose J. Working memory capacity of crows and monkeys arises from similar neuronal computations. Rich EL, Frank MJ, Colombo M, eds. eLife. 2021;10:e72783. doi:10.7554/eLife.72783
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