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Inside CSULB
Vol 57 No. 7 : April 2005
Vol 57 No. 7 | Apr. 2005
Professor Says Birds Aren't "Birdbrains"

Students in Lab

Psychology's Diane Lee is one reason why "birdbrain" won't mean stupid anymore.

A full-time member of the university since 1999, Lee is also a member of CSULB's class of 1984 earning her bachelor's in psychology. She is now part of an international consortium of 29 neuroscientists. Their proposal is a drastic renaming of the structures of the avian brain to correctly portray birds as able to plan and learn.

“It was a huge undertaking and we're all still glowing,” said Lee, an Orange County resident who is an expert on the growth of neurons. “This will change the way we conduct science from here on out.”    

Supported by both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium published its technical report detailing the revisions in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. The rationale for the proposed revised nomenclature is now being published in the February issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience. The consortium's efforts were supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, including the NSF's Waterman Award for young researchers to the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper's first author, Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.

The nomenclature that Lee helped revise used prefixes such as palaeo- ("oldest") and archi- ("archaic") for structures in the bird brain and neo- ("new") for new structures, particularly in the mammalian brain. Many parts of the bird brain were labeled erroneously with the suffix “striatum,” a term used to denote the basal ganglia in mammals. The consortium has recommended many changes especially to those incorrectly named striatal structures; such changes as renaming the avian brain region called the "archistriatum" as the "arcopallium" (arched pallium) to emphasize the fact that this region is neither “archaic” nor part of the basal ganglia.

The consortium members argued that the old terminology -- which implied that the avian brain was more primitive than a mammal's – was an obstacle to scientific understanding. Their goal was to replace the 100-year-old system developed by the father of comparative neuroanatomy Ludwig Edinger. Lee argues that Edinger's view of evolution as progressive and linear, while brilliant at the time, is now outdated; pointing out that the so-called “primitive” animals such as birds evolved 50 to 100 million years after mammals.

Lee rejects the idea that birds are all instinct. “Scientists used to believe that birds had no planning or learning capability,” she said. “A stimulus would occur and the bird responded automatically. We've known for a long time that's not true. But when we studied their brains, we were saddled with all the old terminology that said their brains were primitive. No, they're not.”

Behavioral studies have demonstrated that pigeons can recognize cubist paintings from impressionists and that parrots can not only learn human words but also use them to communicate with humans. “When a particular type of crow tries to get a worm or grub out of a tree and its beak cannot reach it, the crow will then crack off a little stem from a nearby tree and use that. If that doesn't get the worm, it will pull out the stem, break it again, then put it back for another try. They can make, modify and use tools,” she said. “There are Clark's Nutcrackers, who can bury up to 10,000 seeds in a given winter then find every single one of them. The memory capacity of these birds far exceeds anything people can do. Some of us can't even find our car keys, let alone 10,000 keys, each hidden in a different spot.”

Lee wanted to be a part of the research since its beginning in 1997. “That's when a drastic renaming of the structures of the avian brain was proposed to correctly portray birds as more comparable to mammals in their cognitive ability,” she said. “So we sat down and renamed different pieces of the avian brain. It took a very long time, but was fun.”

One of Lee's biggest contributions was the opening of her Web site, that offers “virtual microscopy” of the avian brain. “I took microscope slides and scanned them in,” she said. “Once the image was posted on my web page, that image could be clicked on, enabling the viewer to zoom down on it like a microscope.”  

One of the reasons 29 scientists were able to work together was the miracle of technology. “We had only one face-to-face conference in seven years,” Lee said. “It was absolutely amazing. It enabled us to debate long before we met. Because we were able to go back and forth for a long time, it made cooperation and agreement possible. E-mail made it possible to talk to everyone at the same time or individually.”

In an ironic twist, the one area the group declined to rename was the area in which Lee is a special expert, the avian hippocampus, which is a major center of bird cognition. “Other parts of the brain control bird song and the like but there was never any doubt about this area being correctly named, so we left it alone,” she laughed. Their success is a source of great satisfaction to Lee, who earned her doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1994. “We have the satisfaction of having righted something we knew was wrong,” she said. “We want to continue exploring how sophisticated these animals are. We are trying to push the limits of what birds can do. This has been the scientific crowning of my career. It was intense and wonderful.”

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