Investigating Sensorimotor Circuits to Understand How the Brain Generates Different Sounds Used in Vocal Communication

Campbell, Ashkia
Among animals, songbirds learn the sounds they use in their songs in a way that is strikingly similar to how we learn the sounds used in speech, and the songs of different species are composed of different sounds and syntax. To help us understand how features of our brains underlie healthy or pathological speech, we study the neurobiology of song performance in different species. My central question is: do different songs emerge because song-related brain circuitry is different between species or because different species use the same circuitry in different ways? The songbird brain contains a site that is functionally analogous to parts of the human cortex responsible for speech. That site, called HVC, contains a pathway to the premotor vocal cortex (HVCRA) and another pathway to the avian basal ganglia (HVCX). Those pathways are important for both song perception and performance, respectively. We used electrophysiological techniques to record the properties of all types of HVC neurons in Bengalese finches. Those experiments are underway, but our early results indicate that circuits and properties of HVC in Bengalese finches are essentially identical to those found in zebra finches (Mooney and Prather 2005). Thus, the song-related circuitry appears to be strongly conserved across different species. If this trend continues, these data suggest that different species have solved the challenge of learned vocal communication in similar ways. These parallels between how birds learn their songs and how we learn speech and language suggest that lessons learned in the songbird may help us understand the neural basis of speech.
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