Singing Birds May Lead to Cures

A University of Houston professor says the genes of a small bird called a Zebra Finch could one day provide the key to cures for things such as autism, learning disabilities and speech impairment. Bill Stamps explains.
You've heard of DNA, but unless you're really into science you've probably never heard of RNA. Even scientists thought they were so worthless they gave them the nickname junk genes.

"These are tiny genes that we previously did not expect in any way or form to have any significance."

But not long ago some scientists were studying the genes of the Zebra Finch, a small bird that likes to sing. They noticed those junk genes started getting really active whenever music was played. University of Houston professor Preethi Gunaratne is a specialist in those small genes and was asked to study them further.

"I was very excited, because for me there were huge implications from the songbird model for a number of human conditions, speech impairment, learning and memory process."

The Zebra Finch passes its songs down from father to son. Gunaratne believes that if she can find the genes that control the singing and memorization process, perhaps researchers can locate those same genes in humans.

"We will then look to see in humans that are affected by speech impairment, social interactions, whether any of these genes have mistakes in them or mutations."

And for them, that's where it starts getting exciting, because if they can find mistakes in the genes of people with those diseases or conditions, then there's a chance those mistakes can be fixed.

"So you can either find a drug that will correct this. If someone is autistic because it's not making this gene at the right place, maybe you can find a drug that can induce it. Or on the other hand, if it's something that's being inappropriately made, maybe you can find a drug that can shut it down."

So it's possible people who have certain conditions that affect their vocal abilities may one day talk again…all because of a bird who can sing.