Like humans, juvenile songbirds learn to imitate the vocal patterns of an adult during a sensitive period of development. Also like humans, songbird vocal patterns are controlled by a forebrain network that includes pre-motor, striatal, and auditory pathways for processing vocal sounds and gestures. This proposal seeks to understand how these pathways interact to produce stable vocal patterns. Our working hypothesis states that learned song results from an integration of pre-motor and striatal pathways encoding stereotyped and variable vocal patterns, respectively. This simple hypothesis makes clear predictions about the vocal effects of altering the relative strength of pre-motor and striatal pathways. For example, we have shown that weakening the premotor pathway in adult birds (via partial ablation) produces highly variable singing reminiscent of a learning juvenile. However, adult vocal patterns show surprising resilience as birds subsequently recover stable song within 1 week. This recovery depends on auditory feedback, indicating that adult vocal recovery involves instructive mechanisms similar to those that guide juvenile learning. Recently, we designed an experiment to identify the neural locus of these instructive mechanisms in adult birds and demonstrated that they cannot lie within their long-presumed location - the striatal pathway. Here, we propose experiments to 1.) test our model of pre-motor and striatal pathway function in juvenile birds and 2.) identify the neural loci and mechanisms by which auditory feedback promotes vocal learning (in juveniles) and maintenance of stable song (in adults). These experiments will provide new information about the functional architecture of the songbird vocal control network - this knowledge will offer new insight into the functional architecture of the analogous neural regions that control human vocal learning. 1

Public Health Relevance

Learned vocal patterns in humans and songbirds show striking similarity in terms of auditory dependence, behavioral development, and forebrain neural control. This research proposal will investigate the functional integration of three distinct brain pathways (auditory, pre-motor, and striatal) during juvenile learning and adult recitation of songbird vocal patterns. All three neural pathways have clear parallels in the brain network that controls human vocal patterns - thus, understanding neural pathway functions in songbirds will lead to a testable theory of the function of analogous structures in the human vocal control system.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Sensorimotor Integration Study Section (SMI)
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Shekim, Lana O
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Florida State University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Elliott, Kevin C; Wu, Wei; Bertram, Richard et al. (2014) Disconnection of a basal ganglia circuit in juvenile songbirds attenuates the spectral differentiation of song syllables. Dev Neurobiol 74:574-90
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Wu, Wei; Thompson, John A; Bertram, Richard et al. (2008) A statistical method for quantifying songbird phonology and syntax. J Neurosci Methods 174:147-54