Prof Homes in on Pigeons for Insight into Human Diseases

Dr. Gerald Hough, assistant professor of biological sciences and psychology at Rowan University, is hoping the 15 homing pigeons roosting on the top floor of Bosshart Hall will provide some insight in
Dr. Gerald Hough, assistant professor of biological sciences and psychology at Rowan University, is hoping the 15 homing pigeons roosting on the top floor of Bosshart Hall will provide some insight into Alzheimer?s disease, Parkinson?s disease and dementia.

Hough and three of his students are conducting a variety of non-invasive experiments to determine why homing pigeons (a.k.a. rock doves) are able to do what they do so well: find their way home whether released near or far.

?The major problem we have now as people is the population is getting older. Usually one of the first things that goes is learning and memory?both the ability to remember past events and to learn new things,? the professor said. ?A lot of the animal models of learning and memory are applicable to humans.?

Hough believes that to be true of homing pigeons, and he hopes his work with them with teach him something about the human condition.

To that end, he has taken over the roof and top floor of Rowan?s former science building, where he has constructed a 12? x 6? by 6? indoor cage for the birds. The aviary is connected via a ventilation system to an outdoor flight cage.

Right now, he and the students are training birds to find food hidden in particular places within an experimental arena using a variety of strategies such as ultraviolet light, landmarks and the position of the sun in the sky. To evaluate how the birds navigate, the team is installing a sign over a bowl that has food in it but not over three empty bowls in an effort to determine whether the birds pick up on the cue. In another experiment with the room darkened, they are focusing ultraviolet light on a food bowl they want the birds to travel to and see if it works as a beacon for them, possibly providing an indication of how it is the birds can find their home in overcast weather with few typical cues visible. ?People say birds use ultraviolet light in part to know where to go, but no one?s done an experiment in an arena to see how,? Hough said.

When the weather gets warmer, they plan to open the ventilation system to allow the birds to travel from the inside to outside cage, a means to enable them to get used to being outside and sensitize them to their home environment. Once used to the area, the team will remove the top of the flight cage so the birds can fly at will. By mid-summer, they will take the birds a short distance off campus and release them to return to Rowan, where the opening into the building is painted a bright yellow to serve as a marker for the pigeons.

Hough, who earned a Ph.D. in ecology, evolution and organismal biology and M.S. in zoology from Ohio State University and a B.S. in biological sciences from Purdue University, expects the pigeons will return. ?Food, shelter, home?this is where they belong,? he said.

Hough, who conducted post-doctoral research at Bowling Green State University on spatial information in the hippocampus of homing pigeons and has published extensively on the topic, believes the research will translate into valuable findings that may benefit humans.

Most studies done on memory loss and learning involve rats and mice. The problem is they?re using a model species that is nocturnal and tends to use smell, not sight, to guide them, so their view of the world and the way they get around the world may be completely different than humans,? Hough said.

Hough believes it makes more sense to use birds, which travel during daylight and perceive the world in a way similar to people, to test memory and learning. ?I love dealing with birds,? Hough said. ?They?re just so good at what they do. They are the most complex individuals as far as behavior, the best migrators and the best communicators.?

Hough, who estimates there are only seven to 10 labs in the world conducting this type of research, will work with students on the study for at least two years.

NOTE: Students working on the project are:

Joshua Lapergola, 24, of Haddon Heights, Biological Sciences

Kristen Kabis, 21, of Ledgewood, Biological Sciences

Jon Guito, 21, of Mt. Laurel, Biological Sciences