PLOS ONE set out to do some research on vocal impairment when intoxication is a factor. Meaning, they – like many scientists – wondered what the correlation was between alcohol consumption, and how vocally impaired they were. The scientists tested zebra finches, and what they found was quite interesting.
It’s worth noting that zebra finches are regularly studied to determine things regarding human speech. It’s no secret that zebra finches actually learn to sing, and use the same genes to sing that humans do to speak. They learn from other birds around them, just like humans – and even as the sounds become more complex – the birds continue to learn in the same fashion. It isn’t instinct, or automatic – but rather something that is taught through a process.
Scientists found that as the birds were fed the mixture of grape juice and ethanol – which intoxicated them, sang their songs differently than those who were not fed the intoxicating mixture. Specifically, the volume and structure of the songs were the first impacted areas of communication in this sense. Scientists though didn’t do this to see birds under the influence. Instead, they were working to better understand what part of the brain is being impacted by the alcohol – compared to an ordinary situation.
Interestingly, the scientists found that the intoxicated birds didn’t exhibit any of the failings, or systematic issues that humans face when they are intoxicated – even though their songs were impacted by their intoxication level. “We did not detect visible effects on the birds’ general behaviors or health, as indicated by normal appearance of feathers and the ability to perch, feed maintain normal posture and fly inside the cage,” noted one of the study authors.
The similarities between humans and finches in this regard is important because it gives scientists an inside look at what parts of the brain are actually impacted by alcohol, and why it impacts speech in humans. Since research is difficult in this category on humans, it’s important to make these connections on the next-closest creatures when it comes to speech and how it’s mastered within any given species. For us, the next best example in nature is the zebra finch, and this research did wonders to really better understand how our own brains function.