The songs of Alston's singing mice (Scotinomys teguina) from the cloud forests of Costa Rica may shed light on how humans communicate with each other.
The study, which was published the journal Science, may even help researchers better understand the causes of speech disorders, which could pave way for new treatments.
Unlike other lab animals, Alston's singing mice take turns singing and their rapid-fire duets are giving researchers a new model to study how the human brain controls a conversation.
When two males meet, one on his home turf, and the other from the outside, they sing a turn-taking duet. The outsider, however, only starts to sing when the resident mouse has finished his song. It also immediately stops once the resident starts to sing again. This vocal turn-taking is similar to how humans take turns speaking during a conversation.
"We find that males modify singing behavior during social interactions on a subsecond time course that resembles both traditional sensorimotor tasks and conversational speech," the researchers wrote in their study.
Researchers found that a brain region known as motor cortex is needed for both mice and humans to vocally interact.
They observed that along with brain areas that tell the muscles to create notes, separate circuits in the motor cortex allow the fast starts and stops that form a conversation between vocal partners.
New Treatments For Speech Disorders
The researchers now use the mouse model to guide the exploration of speech circuits in human brains. A better understanding of how two brains engage in a conversation can help identify processes that go awry when disease interferes with communication.
The researchers said this could lead to the development of new treatments for many disorders.
"We need to understand how our brains generate verbal replies instantly using nearly a hundred muscles if we are to design new treatments for the many Americans for whom this process has failed, often because of diseases such as autism or traumatic events like stroke," said study researcher Michael Long, from NYU School of Medicine.