Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center, is making quite a name for himself.

Jarvis, a pioneer in research of bird brains, is one of only 13 researchers to receive “Pioneer Awards” from the National Institutes of Health. The award is worth $500,000 a year for each of the next five years. The “unrestricted” grants are for use in biomedical research.

Jarvis has focused on the neurobiology involved vocal communication. He uses songbirds as a model. His studies have led to new insights into the genetics and molecular biology of learned vocal communication.

Last year, Jarvis was the leader of an international group that proposed a “drastic renaming of the structures of the bird brain to correctly portray birds as more comparable to mammals in their cognitive ability,” according to Duke.

Jarvis will use the funding to “test a hypothesis about the genetic machinery underlying vocal learning that could pave the way for repairing vocalization disorders in humans,” Duke added.

“The scientists we recognize with Pioneer Awards have far-ranging ideas that hold the potential to make truly extraordinary contributions to many fields of medical research,” Zerhouni said. “The recipients reflect the talent and diversity of the impressive group of scientists who competed for the award.” Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said in announcing the awards.

Homme Hellinga, a biochemist at Duke, received an award last year. The program was launched in 2004.

Highlights of Jarvis’s work include:

  • 1997: Jarvis and his former advisor Fernando Nottebohm discover that the act of producing learned vocalizations in songbirds activates increased expression of genes involved in brain plasticity.

  • 1998: Jarvis and researchers “found dramatic differences in this activation depending on the social context in which the animals communicate.”

  • 2000-2004: Researchers find “similar gene activation occurs in other vocal learning species, and they used these findings to gain insight into the evolution of brain pathways for vocal learning, including in humans.”

  • 2004: Researchers discover that “a nearly identical version of a gene (FoxP2) to one whose mutation produces an inherited language deficit in humans, is a key component of the song-learning machinery in birds.”

  • 2005: Researchers discover “night-migratory songbirds possess a specialized night-vision brain area. This structure could enable the birds to navigate by the stars and even to visually detect the earth’s magnetic field.”

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