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Patterns of Learning, Memory, and Vocal Production in the Songbird Brain

Dr. David Vicario

Tuesday, February 12, 2008, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Rutgers University, Department of Psychology

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The complex system of verbal signals used for communication is a defining adaptation of the human species, and it depends on each infant learning to perceive and produce the rapid speech signals used in its particular language environment. Of the very few animal taxa that learn the vocal signals they use for social communication as humans do, songbirds are the most easily studied at the neurobiological level.
In both humans and songbirds, infants learn vocalizations by imitating the sounds of conspecific tutors heard during an early sensitive period. An acoustic pattern is stored in the brain and used as a reference that guides vocal motor development to eventually mimic the same acoustic pattern. This process combines many forms of perceptual and motor learning whose brain mechanisms we seek to understand. We have identified a specialized auditory area in the songbird brain where neurons respond more strongly to conspecific than to heterospecific vocal sounds and form long-lasting memories for the unique vocalizations of individual conspecifics. We are actively investigating the way song patterns are processed and remembered in this area. The songbird brain also contains specialized vocal production areas whose size and function are correlated with vocal learning, and that show intriguing properties, e.g. sexual dimorphism and lateralization. We are studying the contribution of activity in these areas to the detailed progression of sensorimotor events that ultimately produce the imitated pattern. Thus the birdsong system enables us to study basic mechanisms of object recognition, memory and motor learning in a behavioral context that may shed light on the process of speech acquisition.

Dr. David Vicario