Fun Science FRIEDay – Inception

Inception, a clever movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio where the premise of the story is to sneak into a person’s subconscious and implant an idea or a memory whilst they sleep. When the person awakes from their slumber they cannot distinguish the implanted memory from their own. It makes for blockbuster cinematography, but the practical concept is quite frightening to think about: the ability to artificially implant memories inches closer to the prospect of reality distortion.

Zebra Finch – Birds (Credit: Paul Dinning)

In a major breakthrough, scientists have waded into the realm of the fantastical by accomplishing the difficult task of Inception. Researchers at the  University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have been working on understanding how memories are encoded in the brain, specifically using  Zebra finches to understand memories that guide the development of speech and social skills.

Normally Zebra finches learn their songs by memorising the song of their father, and over time learn to copy this song. The song consists of a series of short notes, or syllables, but initially juvenile finches attempts at singing sounds like a bunch of babble as they develop their song, similar in the way that baby humans babble until those sounds begin to form into coherent words.

Juvenile finches learning to sing (Credit: New Scientist)

At Texas Southwestern Medical Center the team implanted memories in the brains of young finches that changed the length of the notes they sing. The process involved manipulating a region of the brain that the birds use to learn their song. This approach was performed on young male finches who had never been exposed to singing adults. By manipulating neural activity at the connections or synapses, the researchers were able to control the length of the syllables the birds produced. Syllable length is just one aspect of the song that finches must learn, along with pitch and combining syllables into sequences. But this represent another step on the pathway toward refining the process of Inception.

Happy Fun Science FRIEDay, and enjoy your thoughts while they’re still your own! 😉

You can read the full article in the journal Science.