Vocal learning in songbirds provides a useful model for studying how performance-based feedback is used by the nervous system in calibrating and maintaining motor skills, with particular relevance to human speech. Birdsong offers the advantages of a well-described and quantifiable behavior that is subserved by a discrete and extensively investigated set of brain regions. Song learning proceeds in two stages, both of which depend critically on hearing [17, 18]. First, during a period of sensory learning, young birds listen to and memorize the song of an adult 'tutor'. Then, during a period of sensorimotor learning, they use auditory feedback to gradually refine their own initially rambling vocalizations so that they progressively resemble the previously memorized tutor song. Normal song learning requires appropriate experience during a sensitive period in early development, and also relies on auditory feedback in adulthood to maintain precisely calibrated vocal output [4]. The similarities between song and speech in their reliance on auditory feedback suggest that investigations of song learning may provide more general insights into the behavioral and neural mechanisms that govern vocal-motor learning. In addition, we are especially interested in the function of an avian basal ganglia-forebrain circuit (the anterior forebrain pathway or 'AFP') in vocal learning. This circuit plays a central role in feedback-dependent song learning in juvenile and adult birds. Because the AFP can be studied mechanistically in the context of well-defined behavior it may prove to be a particularly tractable model for understanding basal ganglia function more generally. Here, we propose to use the techniques for auditory feedback manipulation that we developed under the previous grant cycle to extend our studies of how vocal behavior in songbirds is shaped by experience (aim 1), determine how the signals that drive learning are represented in the brain (Aim 2) and how they engage basal ganglia circuitry to change song (Aim 3). We will focus on the Bengalese finch, a species that exhibits general properties of vocal learning, but appears to rely particularly strongly on auditory feedback. Songbirds provide a model where the influence of performance-based feedback on a well-defined and quantifiable behavior can be understood at a mechanistic level. Such an understanding will provide basic insight into normal learning processes, with particular relevance to speech, and contribute to our ability to prevent and correct disabilities that arise from dysfunction of these processes.

Public Health Relevance

We will use songbirds to investigate the neural mechanisms that underlie the influence of auditory feedback on adult vocal learning. Such investigations will provide basic insight into normal learning processes, with particular relevance to human speech, and contribute to our ability to prevent and correct disabilities that arise from dysfunction of these processes. Because vocal learning depends crucially on widely conserved basal ganglia-forebrain circuits, this system additionally may prove an especially tractable one for investigating the general functioning of such circuits in motor control and learning and the deficits that arise under conditions of basal ganglia disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Sensorimotor Integration Study Section (SMI)
Program Officer
Shekim, Lana O
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of California San Francisco
Schools of Medicine
San Francisco
United States
Zip Code
Miller, Mark N; Cheung, Chung Yan J; Brainard, Michael S (2017) Vocal learning promotes patterned inhibitory connectivity. Nat Commun 8:2105
Tian, Lucas Y; Brainard, Michael S (2017) Discrete Circuits Support Generalized versus Context-Specific Vocal Learning in the Songbird. Neuron 96:1168-1177.e5
Bouchard, Kristofer E; Brainard, Michael S (2016) Auditory-induced neural dynamics in sensory-motor circuitry predict learned temporal and sequential statistics of birdsong. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:9641-6
Wittenbach, Jason D; Bouchard, Kristofer E; Brainard, Michael S et al. (2015) An Adapting Auditory-motor Feedback Loop Can Contribute to Generating Vocal Repetition. PLoS Comput Biol 11:e1004471
Brainard, Michael S; Fitch, W Tecumseh (2014) Editorial overview: communication and language: animal communication and human language. Curr Opin Neurobiol 28:v-viii
James, Logan S; Sakata, Jon T (2014) Vocal motor changes beyond the sensitive period for song plasticity. J Neurophysiol 112:2040-52
Tang, Claire; Chehayeb, Diala; Srivastava, Kyle et al. (2014) Millisecond-scale motor encoding in a cortical vocal area. PLoS Biol 12:e1002018
Brainard, Michael S; Doupe, Allison J (2013) Translating birdsong: songbirds as a model for basic and applied medical research. Annu Rev Neurosci 36:489-517
Bouchard, Kristofer E; Brainard, Michael S (2013) Neural encoding and integration of learned probabilistic sequences in avian sensory-motor circuitry. J Neurosci 33:17710-23
Warren, Timothy L; Charlesworth, Jonathan D; Tumer, Evren C et al. (2012) Variable sequencing is actively maintained in a well learned motor skill. J Neurosci 32:15414-25

Showing the most recent 10 out of 21 publications