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Scientists say singing mice may provide missing link in history of speech

A team of Duke University scientists suggest mice may seek to attract females by singing.

“We are claiming that mice have limited versions of the brain and behavior traits for vocal learning that are found in humans for learning speech and in birds for learning song,” said Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, who oversaw the study.

“If we’re not wrong, these findings will be a big boost to scientists studying diseases like autism and anxiety disorders,” said Jarvis. “The researchers who use mouse models of the vocal communication effects of these diseases will finally know the brain system that controls the mice’s vocalizations.”

The study — conducted to analyze the effects of certain diseases on our ability to communicate — has contradicted previous scientific consensus that mice are not able to change their voices in the same way as other mammals, such as humans. The scientists say the mice possess a rudimentary motor control center in their brain, which works in conjunction with the vocal cords to provide voluntary control over pitch and tune. While the singsong pitch is hardly advanced, the researchers noted that further studies could use the findings when studying diseases such as autism and anxiety disorders.

“We are claiming that mice have limited versions of the brain and behavior traits for vocal learning that are found in humans for learning speech and in birds for learning song,” said Jarvis. “In mice, they don’t exist at the advanced levels found in humans and song-learning birds, but they also are not completely absent as commonly assumed.”

“The researchers who use mouse models of the vocal communication effects of these diseases will finally know the brain system that controls the mice’s vocalizations,” he added.

Jarvis conducted the study with his former graduate student Gustavo Arriaga, along with a colleague from Tulane University. The team explained that they tested male mice for vocal learning traits as part of a larger project to study speech evolution in humans. Vocal learning appears to be unique to humans, songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds and scientists define it with five features related to brain structure and behavior, according to the team of scientists.

Jarvis compared the effect of the mice’s ability to create tunes to that of Luciano Pavarotti or Justin Bieber, saying tunes emitted by mammals have a psychological effect widespread in the animal kingdom. The team noted that singing mice is likely another example of mating rituals, many of which are seen as odd when taken out of context.

While the study is seen as groundbreaking by some scientists, others cautioned against reading too much into the findings. The study upends nearly sixty years of previous research, which Jarbis acknowledged makes the study controversial.

“This is a very important study with great findings,” said Kurt Hammerschmidt, an expert in vocal communication at the German Primate Center who was not involved in the study. Hammerschmidt said that he remains cautious about some of the claims that suggest mice can learn vocalizations, noting that, if true, the study would be groundbreaking in studying the evolution of vocalization.

The results appear October 10 in PLOS ONE and are further described in a review article in Brain and Language.