Fakultät für Psychologie
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News & Views
RECORding single unit activity in the freely moving pigeon
Learning is a fundamental ability of all organisms and the underlying neuronal mechanisms are highly conserved across species. To understand the mechanisms of learning at the single neuron level, we seek to record the activity of individual neurons across different learning stages. With this goal, RUB biopsychologists designed a behavioral task which encompassed three learning stages in a single experimental session. They made use of the keenness of pigeons in operant tasks who are willing to perform a vast amount of trials (>1000) for a relatively low amount of reinforcers. In addition, several methodological measurements were implemented to improve and control recording quality. To sum up and conserve the used methodological standards, we published a video article in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), where the sophisticated behavioral paradigm as well as our methodological inventions are visualized and described in detail.
Starosta, S., Stüttgen, M. C., Güntürkün, O. (2014). Recording Single Neurons' Action Potentials from Freely Moving Pigeons Across Three Stages of Learning. J. Vis. Exp. (88), e51283, doi:10.3791/51283.
News & Views
Is Dolphin Cognition Special?
Recently, the government of India decided by law that "cetaceans...should be seen as 'non-human persons' and as such should have their own specific rights." This decision results from the political pressure, the public opinion, and the work of a small group of scientists who argue that dolphins have an intelligence that comes close to humans. In Germany activists and members of the Green Party demand that the dolphinaries in Duisburg and Nürnberg be closed. But how strong is the scientific evidence for the cognitive exceptionality of dolphins? Paul Manger [Neuroscience, 2013] reviewed the dolphin cognition literature and drew a quite sobering conclusion. But is his critique justified or does he throw the baby out with the bathwater? In an invited review to Brain, Behavior and Evolution (2014), Onur Güntürkün summarizes the literature on dolphin cognition and compares it with evidences from other animals. He concludes that dolphin cognition is not exceptional since there is not a single achievement that has not also been shown in several other species. However, in all major areas of comparative cognitive science, dolphins have been shown to achieve fast learning, high flexibility, and a swift transfer of learned knowledge to new contingencies. So, dolphins are in many respects cognitive generalists, performing at an overall high level. So, the evolution of high cognitive skills has independently taken place in several lines of life, among them primates, cetacean (mostly dolphins), birds (mostly corvids and parrots). There seem to be many different routes to intelligence.
News & Views
The avian and the mammalian hippocampus: A divide of 300 million years
The evolutionary lines of birds and mammals diverged nearly 300 million years ago. As a consequence, the brains of these two classes of vertebrates share some features but also have many unique and non-shared properties. The hippocampus is an especially interesting case: the hippocampus of mammals and birds is homologous and thus stems from a common reptilian ancestor that already had a hippocampus. As a result, avian and mammalian hippocampi share some similar functions (e.g. spatial cognition) and anatomical features (e.g. a re-entrant loop). But they also developed a large number of bird- or mammal-typical aspects that do not seem to have counterpart. Overall, it is still mostly unknown which components of the bird hippocampus are avian-unique and which are similar to mammals. To solve these questions, scientists from Bochum, Düsseldorf, and Bowling Green (USA) analyzed binding site densities for 11 different receptor systems by using quantitative in vitro receptor autoradiography. Additionally, they labeled zinc to show a further compartmentalization of the hippocampus. The regionally different receptor densities mapped well onto seven hippocampal subdivisions previously described. Several differences in receptor expression highlighted distinct hippocampal subfields. In addition, several similarities in receptor binding densities between subdivisions of the avian and mammalian hippocampus were observed. Despite the similarities, the consortium of scientists concluded that 300 hundred million years of independent evolution has led to a vast mosaic of similarities and differences in the organization of the avian and mammalian hippocampal formation. Thinking about the avian hippocampus in terms of the strict organization of the mammalian hippocampus is likely insufficient to understand the hippocampus of birds.
Herold, C., Bingman, V. P., Ströckens, F., Letzner, S., Sauvage, M., Palomero-Gallagher, N., Zilles, K. Güntürkün, O. (2014). Distribution of Neurotransmitter Receptors and Zinc in the Pigeon (Columba livia) Hippocampal Formation: A Basis for Further Comparison with the Mammalian Hippocampus, J. Comp. Neurol., 522: 2553-2575.
News & Views
Maik Stüttgen becomes a Professor for Behavioral Neurophysiology
Since a while, rumor had it. Then it became official; and now it truly happened: Maik Stüttgen left the Biopsychology to become a Professor for Behavioral Neurophysiology at the University of Mainz. What a loss for us, what a gain for the crowd down under in Mainz! Maik truly personalized the best mixture of a young scientist who is on his way to become a great scholar: focused and dedicated, but at the same time approachable and caring for students; critical for all details but also seeing the greater picture. His PhD-students had only one phrase for him that captured it all: He’s cool, really really cool. Good luck Maik!! We will miss you a lot.
News & Views
Interhemispheric Conflicts in Pigeons
In birds each hemisphere receives visual input from the contralateral eye. Since birds have no corpus callosum, avian brains are often seen as ‘natural split brains’. But if the two hemispheres can’t interact, how do birds cope with situations, when both hemispheres are brought into conflict? Who then is in charge for a decision? If under such conditions one hemisphere completely determines the response, this is called meta-control. The aim of the current study is to test, if meta-control results from an interhemispheric conflict that would require interhemispheric interaction. If such a conflict-based interaction occurs, it should produce a delay in responding. This interaction could happen via the the commissura anterior, a small forebrain commissure that also exists in birds. To this end, biopsychologists from Bochum trained pigeons in a forced-choice color discrimination task under monocular condition such that each hemisphere was trained with a different pair of colors. Subsequently, pigeons were binocularly tested with conflicting and non-conflicting stimulus patterns. Conflicting stimuli indeed produced a delayed reaction time as expected when two divergent decisions create a conflict. Thus, pigeons indeed undergo interhemispheric conflict during meta-control even without a corpus callosum. Their hemispheres then possibly interact via the commissura anterior.