Why avian cognitive neuroscience?

The fundamental aim of cognitive neuroscience is to understand how the brain generates cognitive, intelligent, behavior. Traditionally, it was achieved by studying humans and our close relatives. This approach goes back to a linear view of brain evolution which implies that an animal’s intelligence is determined by its kinship to humans: no bird can be as intelligent as our cousin the sheep for instance.

Indeed, relative to the evolution of intelligence, the lines of birds and mammals separated very early. This, however, does not mean that birds are not intelligent. It rather means that we don’t owe our intelligence to a common ancestor and that our neural machinery for cognition evolved independently.  In fact, crows surpass most mammals such as sheep.

The project compares how avian and mammalian brains solve the same cognitive problems. Independent evolution of the same mechanism in both species implies a general neural principle. However, different neural solutions can challenge our models. The absence of cortical organization in birds, for example, demonstrates that cortex is not the only structure for intelligence.

For this comparison we focus on working memory, the ability to hold information ‘in mind’ and and to further process this information.  We train crows on complex working memory paradigms to record neural activity using state of the art techniques. This approach allows a direct comparison between the neural mechanisms in birds and mammals.