A critical challenge in understanding the neural basis of any complex behavior, including human language, is the development of appropriate animal models. Yet, for language, longstanding theoretical positions hold that many of the underlying cognitive capabilities are uniquely human. We have recently demonstrated, however, that European starlings, a species of song bird, can acquire and use complex patterning rules extracted from sequences of conspecific songs, thereby exhibiting syntactic processing abilities previously thought unique to humans. We have also recently shown that single neurons in the auditory forebrain region CMM, an analog to mammalian auditory cortex, acquire explicit representations of acoustic features in (and only in) the songs that adult starlings have learned to recognize. The combination of these results provides a unique opportunity for significant advancement in our understanding of the neurobiological and behavioral mechanisms for the perception and cognition of temporally patterned acoustic communication signals. We propose a series of neurophysiological and behavioral studies that capitalize on this opportunity with the overall goal of establishing birdsong as a model system for the neurobiological mechanisms of syntactic processing. We will examine experience-dependent song-selective responses in the ascending auditory hierarchy, testing the hypothesis that the auditory regions adjacent to CMM show selective representations of behaviorally relevant songs. We will examine temporal pattern perception and syntactic rule learning at the behavioral level to understand how learned patterning rules (i.e. syntax) can be applied by birds independent of pattern element acoustics, perhaps a crucial distinction between birds and humans. Finally, we will explore the neural bases of temporal pattern recognition and syntactic processing directly, by testing the hypothesis that the acquisition of syntactic rules describing patterns of song motifs leads to explicit representation of the acquired syntax in CMM and/or adjacent regions. The results of these studies will establish songbirds a model system for biological study of fundamental computational processes that underlie human language. This basic research therefore advances significantly the promise of clinical treatment for a variety of language and communication disorders, in children and cognitively impaired adults.

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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University of California San Diego
Schools of Arts and Sciences
La Jolla
United States
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Bregman, Micah R; Patel, Aniruddh D; Gentner, Timothy Q (2016) Songbirds use spectral shape, not pitch, for sound pattern recognition. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1666-71
Kozlov, Andrei S; Gentner, Timothy Q (2016) Central auditory neurons have composite receptive fields. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1441-6
Perks, Krista E; Gentner, Timothy Q (2015) Subthreshold membrane responses underlying sparse spiking to natural vocal signals in auditory cortex. Eur J Neurosci 41:725-33
Comins, Jordan A; Gentner, Timothy Q (2015) Pattern-Induced Covert Category Learning in Songbirds. Curr Biol 25:1873-7
Comins, Jordan A; Gentner, Timothy Q (2014) Auditory temporal pattern learning by songbirds using maximal stimulus diversity and minimal repetition. Anim Cogn 17:1023-30
Kozlov, Andrei S; Gentner, Timothy Q (2014) Central auditory neurons display flexible feature recombination functions. J Neurophysiol 111:1183-9
Knudsen, Daniel P; Gentner, Timothy Q (2013) Active recognition enhances the representation of behaviorally relevant information in single auditory forebrain neurons. J Neurophysiol 109:1690-703
Jeanne, James M; Sharpee, Tatyana O; Gentner, Timothy Q (2013) Associative learning enhances population coding by inverting interneuronal correlation patterns. Neuron 78:352-63
Thompson, Jason V; Jeanne, James M; Gentner, Timothy Q (2013) Local inhibition modulates learning-dependent song encoding in the songbird auditory cortex. J Neurophysiol 109:721-33
Comins, Jordan A; Gentner, Timothy Q (2013) Perceptual categories enable pattern generalization in songbirds. Cognition 128:113-8

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