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The Complexities of Singing and Song Learning

The Complexities of Singing and Song Learning

Signing Illustration Background: Animal models provide neuroscientists with solid evidence on the structure and function of the brain. For example, it is observed that the adult brain may be able to add nerve cells (neurogenesis). Hence understanding the neural circuitry of animals that vocalize (e.g., songbirds) is relevant to the understanding of the neural basis of human speech, given the similarities of structures and abilities in brains of birds and mammals, including humans.

Advance: NIDCD-supported scientists have examined and described the structure and function of nerve cells (neurons) involved in learning, planning, and execution of complex movements. Specifically, scientists are studying the high vocal center (HVC) portion of the brain that is involved in singing and song learning in zebra finch birds and how their nervous system involves movement and hearing associated with learned vocalization. It was observed that during singing, the finch’s projection neurons (HVC/RA) send scattered impulses. During song playback, another set of projection neurons (HVC/X) are involved and are essential in vocal plasticity. These local interactions between neurons, including inhibition of other neurons, shape highly selective responses that distinguish the role of HVC in vocalization.

Implications: Research has shown that several neuronal features are likely to be involved in motor and auditory functions of the HVC in song-related activity. Neurons excite interneurons that inhibit other neurons, providing a feed-forward inhibitory mechanism. Interneurons connect to a variety of projection neurons to coordinate their activity. Understanding the complexities of the finch’s HVC and how it learns to sing may be relevant to understanding how humans process speech.

Citation: Mooney R, Prather JF, The HVC Microcircuit: the Synaptic Basis for Interactions between Song Motor and Vocal Plasticity Pathways. J Neurosci 25, 1952-1964, 2005.

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