The focus of this proposed research is developmental vocal learning, using the songbird as a model. Both humans and zebra finches acquire their vocal repertoire during early life by imitating adult conspecifics. This process has three prominent similarities in the two species: Vocal learning occurs during a sensitive period of development, during this period it relies on auditory feedback, and the vocal learning is facilitated by the presence of a mode of highly variable vocalizations, called babbling. In juvenile songbirds, distinct brain areas are dedicated to babbling, and these areas drive vocal exploration. In this application we propose to examine how vocal exploration guides changes in the songs produced, and how auditory feedback can be used to allow "self-improvement" of vocal patterns. Furthermore, we anticipate that understanding how the different layers of song structure develop might allow us to teach adult birds new songs, thereby overcoming the age constraints that normally prevent vocal learning in adult birds. To this end, we have designed new imitation tasks in which we guide the bird's imitation from one model song to another and determine the parameters of particular trajectories of imitation, recording and analyzing every vocalization the bird makes over the period of learning.
The proposed research will examine the role of babbling in developmental vocal learning using songbirds as a model of early speech development. We will try to achieve vocal learning in the zebra finch after the sensitive period for vocal learning is over. Our findings might lead to improved treatment of speech disorders induced by stroke, or as seen in developmental apraxia.
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