Chickadees use brain cell ‘barcodes’ to remember where they hid their snacks | Trending Viral hub

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Chickadees use brain cell ‘barcodes’ to remember where they hid their snacks

Unique patterns of neural activation help tiny birds catalog thousands of scattered food caches

A black-capped titmouse with a nut in its beak sitting on a railing on a blurred yellow background.
Credit:

Luc Pouliot/Getty Images

black cap chickadees Don’t let food go to waste. These puffy little birds, with their oversized heads and dark eyes that look like a Beanie Baby, are always hogging extra food such as berries, seeds and insects. A single bird of this species stores its surplus in thousands of caches throughout the forest to prepare sustenance for times of scarcity.

“When (a chickadee) hides a seed, it forms a memory of where the seed is, which it can use later,” says Selmaan Chettih, a postdoctoral researcher who studies the neural activity of these birds at Columbia University. And that memory is extraordinarily precise: Chickadees can pinpoint the location of their scattered food caches to within centimeters and remember which item they hid where.

So how do these birds store and use so many memories? In a new article published Friday in CellChettih and his team were surprised to discover that black-capped chickadees activate barcode-like patterns in their brain when they hide and retrieve food. These neural “barcodes,” which have not yet been observed in any other species, may allow birds to store and retrieve many similar memories without confusing them.


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Like mammals, chickadees and other birds form memories in their hippocampus. This brain structure, which is relatively large in food-storing birds, stores snapshots of past places or events. These isolated fragments, known as episodic memories, can be accessed later to remember certain experiences.

Less is known about how chickadees access episodic memories to find a specific hiding place. Chettih and her team had initially thought that this process would be related to a subset of neurons in the hippocampus called place cells, which encode a animal‘s location at a given moment and form a cognitive map. For example, when a chickadee forms a new memory while depositing a seed in a certain location, a higher concentration of place cells in the hippocampus could be activated for that specific location.

To test this, Chettih and his team placed a group of chickadees in an arena with 128 potential hiding places for food covered by flaps. They provided the chickadees with sunflower seeds through motorized feeders that were only open for short intervals, encouraging the birds to save seeds for later. The researchers equipped each chickadee with an extremely lightweight helmet that measured neural activity in the hippocampus, and used several high-resolution cameras to record each bird’s activity from multiple points of view as it hid each seed.

The team expected to find different activations of the chickadees’ place cells as they stored seeds in various locations. But cellular activity at the site actually remained relatively stable. Instead, the scientists found scattered neural patterns that activated in about 7 percent of the neurons in the chickadees’ hippocampus each time the birds stored a seed under a flap. When the chickadee returned to that specific seed cache, the same neural pattern was reactivated.

The team compared these patterns to barcodes because each one was unique and appeared to store information related to a specific episodic memory. “If you think about a barcode in a supermarket, you can store a lot of information with that label about the food, like its price, name and where it is in the store,” Chettih says. He believes neural barcodes in chickadees work in a similar way, storing information such as when and where a bird hid a specific seed.

While each of a great tit’s neural barcodes involves only about 7 percent of the neurons in its hippocampus, the particular subset of neurons activated changes. For example, even when a chickadee hides a food item right next to another hiding place, a different barcode is activated involving a different set of neurons in the bird’s hippocampus.

The researchers posit that these unique barcodes give birds a clear and quick way to store non-interfering memories about where specific things are hidden. If they were just using place cells to encode all of these locations, things could get confusing, Chettih says. Without the barcode, differentiating nearby caches could become as difficult as distinguishing between similar but unlabeled objects next to each other in the supermarket aisle.

Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, a psychologist and biologist at Western University in Ontario who studies the cognition and behavior of songbirds, says the results are “very novel and exciting.” And he would be surprised if other food-caching birds didn’t use similar neural barcodes to remember where they hid a specific seed. “The use of these barcodes as a proxy for other types of important events in a variety of bird species, and perhaps other animals, seems likely,” he says.

Chettih speculates that similar hippocampal neuronal processes may occur in mammals, including humans. However, observing these brief barcode patterns can be difficult in other animals. The chickadees’ seed-hiding behavior made it relatively easy to determine when the birds were actively forming new place-based memories. In other animals, it may be more difficult to determine when this happens. “It would be difficult to see the barcode if you didn’t know exactly when and where to look for it,” says Chettih. “It may exist in other organisms, but it has not yet been detected.”

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