Linking Neuroanatomy to the Performance of Learned Behaviors: An Investigation of the Neural Basis of Disordered Vocal Performance

Wilson, David A.
Experience-driven changes in brain structure are the essence of the learning, and learning is the basis of nearly every form of human behavior. For example, through the experience of hearing and rehearsing music to learn an instrument, sensory and motor pathways are built, refined and preserved as a novice becomes an expert. Those processes also underlie how we learn the sounds we use to communicate using speech: we gradually become expert in imitating the sounds we hear performed by others around us, those vocal patterns are preserved throughout adulthood in the structure of sensory and motor brain sites dedicated to speech. If the structure of those sites is disturbed, then speech rapidly deteriorates, as occurs in cases of adult-onset stuttering following stroke. To investigate this structural change, I have used use an animal model of acquired changes in the sequencing of sounds used in vocal communication, and have tested whether induced changes in vocal sequence are associated with changes in the size and/or number of neurons in a sensorimotor brain site dedicated to performance and perception of the sounds used in vocal communication. This research has potentially increased our understanding of the anatomical basis of specific pathologies of vocal performance. Structures in the songbird brain are analogous or homologous to corresponding structures in the human brain, and as a result these insights may guide clinical development of mechanistically-targeted therapies for disordered speech.
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