Understanding the fine notes in the songbird's song could help humans handle speech challenges like stuttering, says a study from MIT which identified 50 genes that display similar activity patterns in songbirds and humans.
Existing research had only identified one common gene involved in human and avian language centres.
If a gene was more active in humans, it was also more active in songbirds, but not in non-songbirds.
Researchers had observed that the manner in which birds learn specific song patterns is very similar to how humans learn to form words. The gene correlations come as confirmation.
The research at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and collaborators at Duke University compared genetic maps of brain tissue from three groups: humans, vocal-learning birds, and non-vocal-learning birds and primates.
"Studying fine motor behavior is vital for a lot of neurological disorders in humans, but traditional research subjects like mice are difficult to quantify for those kinds of actions," says Andreas Pfenning. "With birdsong, meanwhile, there are far more exact metrics, like the precision of the pitch, the timing/rhythm of the notes and even the higher-level 'grammar' of different songs."
The researchers utilised multiple massive data sets for the study, including the avian genome, the songbird genome that was completed in 2010, and the 'Allen Brain Atlas' that was used for humans and primates.
The bird gene study can also help illuminate how human languages have evolved.
The work is part of nearly 30 studies published by the Avian Genome Consortium, which seeks to sequence the genomes of all 48 major bird groups — only three of which had been sequenced before the consortium got to work in 2010.
The genome study recently revealed that birdsong evolved independently at least twice, with parrots and songbirds learning to sing separately from hummingbirds.
Researchers also showed that the process of learning to sing led birds to lose their teeth 116 million years ago.