Health, Nature

What Drunk Finches Can Tell Us About Human Speech

Two zebra finches on a branch
A new study of the effects on alcohol on zebra finches could tell us a lot about human speech.
Image: Shutterstock

It turns out drunk zebra finches can tell us a lot about human speech.

In a study published last week, researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University fed finches tiny amounts of a concoction of juice and 6% alcohol to study how it affected their song patterns.

Because birds learn their songs in a way similar to how humans learn to speak, researchers are hoping this study and others like it will reveal more about various ways speech can be impaired.

“At first we were thinking that they wouldn’t drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals just won’t touch the stuff,” researcher Christopher Olson told NPR. But the birds did drink the solution, and it had a marked effect on their song.

The blood alcohol content of the birds was measured through blood samples and ended up between 0.05% and 0.08%–just barely reaching the limit of acceptable human blood alcohol levels. But it was enough to see changes in how the birds sang.

“The most pronounced effects were decreased amplitude and increased entropy,” the researchers wrote. In other words, their songs became quieter and less organized. The specific syllables notable in zebra finch songs became muddled and less distinct.

This result suggests that alcohol affects certain areas of the brain more than others.

“This may help us to better understand how speech and language work and also identify some possible genetic causes of speech and language impairments,” said Dr. Claudio Mello, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at OHSU.



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