In the United States, immigrant populations suffer significant health disparities relative to the general population. Immigrants experience higher rates of some diseases and stress-related conditions, and have lower rates of access to preventative care and services. Numerous studies have identified a lack of English-speaking abilities in adult immigrants as the primary factor driving these health disparities. Improving rates of language learning by adult immigrants and their health care providers are obvious routes to reducing these disparities. Yet there are many questions regarding adult language learning, particularly in regards to the social forces that drive or inhibit learning, and the physiological and neural mechanisms that underlie learning and production. There is increasing evidence that these mechanisms are different in adults than they are in children, but songbirds, the primary animal model for vocal learning, generally do not exhibit vocal learning as adults. The proposed studies would develop the budgerigar, a small parrot, as an alternative animal model for vocal learning. Budgerigars of both sexes are capable of vocal learning as adults and individuals will readily converge to a shared group-specific contact call when moved from one social group to another. This project will utilize this vocal convergence as a behavioral assay of adult vocal learning in a series of experiments designed to test i) the effects of social context and vocal convergence on endocrine stress levels, ii) the effects of manipulated corticosterone (the primary stress hormone in birds) on learning in juveniles and adults, and iii) the role of the gene FoxP2 in learning in juveniles and adults. The first series of experiments will move individuals from one social group to another and monitor corticosterone levels to test the password hypothesis for the function of group-specific vocalizations. The second series of experiments will alter corticosterone levels at both the juvenile and adult stage to test for organizational and activational effects of corticosterone on vocal learning. The third will examine expression patterns of FoxP2, a gene implicated in vocal learning in both humans and songbirds, in the vocal learning centers of the brains of juvenile and adult budgerigars. Together, these experiments will provide novel and potentially transformative insights regarding the vocal learning process in adults and how it differs from learning in juveniles. This SC1 funding will also contribute to the professional development of the PI and enhance biomedical research at a minority serving institution.

Public Health Relevance

PROJECT NARRATIVE Immigrants in the US experience health disparities that result from a lack of English-speaking abilities. This project will examine the effects of social context and stress in an animal model for adult vocal learning, the budgerigar. It will also investigate the physiological and genetic mechanisms that underlie adult vocal learning.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Research Enhancement Award (SC1)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZGM1-MBRS-0 (BH))
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Flagg-Newton, Jean
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New Mexico State University Las Cruces
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Las Cruces
United States
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Whitney, Osceola; Voyles, Tawni; Hara, Erina et al. (2015) Differential FoxP2 and FoxP1 expression in a vocal learning nucleus of the developing budgerigar. Dev Neurobiol 75:778-90
Dahlin, Christine R; Young, Anna M; Cordier, Breanne et al. (2014) A test of multiple hypotheses for the function of call sharing in female budgerigars, Melopsittacus undulatus. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 68:145-161
Young, Anna M; Hallford, Dennis M (2013) Validation of a fecal glucocorticoid metabolite assay to assess stress in the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus). Zoo Biol 32:112-6