The ability to learn a language is a core feature of humanity. Yet, the detailed mammalian brain mechanisms that subserve this complex learning process are poorly understood. The reason for this major gap of knowledge stems from a surprising fact: The vast majority of mammals, including non-human primates and all standard mammalian laboratory animal models, do not learn their language, that is, their vocalizations are innate. Hence, the mammalian neural circuits that support language learning have remained largely obscure. The goal of this proposal is to take the most direct approach towards bridging this gap and establish the bat as the first mammalian model system for studying the detailed brain mechanisms subserving vocal learning. To achieve this goal, all wireless behavioral and neural monitoring technology will be developed and implemented to track and analyze vocal and neural signals of bats in natural settings. In addition to the development of new neurotechnologies and establishment of a new model system, the project supports opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to engage in research and for public science education.
Language learning is a social learning process that occurs under natural conditions and its investigation requires approaches that preserve such settings. To satisfy this requirement, the project aims to develop an all-wireless experimental approach that alleviates many of the physical constraints that are imposed by standard tethered systems. The proposed approach combines novel methods for monitoring and measurement both the animal's behavior, as well as neural activity in relevant brain circuits on a broad range of timescales ranging from milliseconds to months. Taking this approach, the project aims to lay the groundwork for enabling a detailed description of the underlying neuronal dynamics that support vocal learning in the juvenile bat and thereby establish the bat as a mammalian model for investigation of the neurobiology of vocal learning. Considering the profound influence language has over our daily lives, the technologies developed and discoveries made in this research program will be of major interest to both the broad neuroscience community as well as to the general public.