What we can learn by getting a bird drunk

No doubt that Sen. Jeff Flake’s report today on wasteful government spending will be good fodder for news organizations, and equally likely is that most will pick up on the study that federal money was spent getting birds drunk.

Researchers giving finches grape juice laced with liquor to see if they would slur their tweets while drunk? Not surprisingly, the birds do have a problem tweeting while drunk, as many humans do.

Can there be any argument at all that getting birds drunk with tax money isn’t a waste? Possibly.

Even when the research was announced more than a year ago, it was laughed off, even by earnest news organizations like NPR. Science is hard like that.

But the research wasn’t really about the birds; it was about humans. And scientific research is about small steps that can be the underpinning of other research

The researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University (the same place that figured out how to turn skin cells into stem cells) said that we really don’t know that much about the effect of alcohol on cognitive function, at least in regard to speech.

Why use a zebra finch for the research? Because “the vocal control circuitry of humans and songbirds have remarkable similarities: while human vocal production is known to depend on cortical regions, the production and learning of birdsong requires a set of cortical-like and basal ganglia structures, whose primary output is onto vocal and respiratory neurons in the brainstem,” the researchers said in their findings, published in December 2014. Got that? In other words, there’s a little bit of finch in all of us.

We don’t really know as much about the human brain as we need to know. The researchers said determining exactly how alcohol affects vocal motor control in humans might help us examine one of the greatest mysteries on the planet — our brain. Unravel the mystery of a bird brain, and we get more insight into our own.

Sure, we know that humans slur their speech when drunk, but we don’t know enough about why and, moreover, why alcohol affects some parts of the brain, but not others.

Such research might lead to our ability to determine the extent to which we’re drunk by measuring our speech, which could certainly eliminate the current method, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course, that would open up an entire new can of legal worms: Is bioacoustics analysis of our vocalizations a “search” under the Constitution?

Even recognizing the desperate need to unravel the mysteries of our own circuitry, knowing more about how our brains work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps the $51,326 that was spent on it (Flake claimed it was $5 million) could’ve been better spent somewhere else.

On the other hand, that’s less than a third of what we pay United States senators and we’re learning more about our own neurological circuitry from drunk finches than we are from sober politicians.

Related: Meet three of the world’s greatest neuroscientists