RESEARCH NETWORK ON EARLY EXPERIENCE AND BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

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Social Modulation of Songbird Learning

A simple animal model for the acquisition of social behavior is the songbird, which learns to sing in much the same way that humans learn language. In particular, normal song learning is dependent both on hearing the songs of others during a critical period, and on social cues from adults. A Network-supported study is examining how these social cues (or their absence) change both brain and behavior in adult birds vs. in birds still learning to sing. Studies in a simple animal model like this can shed light on the neural mechanisms involved in social modulation of learning.

This study uses several new methods that should prove enlightening. One new method has yielded interesting findings, namely that depleting the bird’s brain of dopamine (a neurotransmitter thought to be critical for learning and attention) alters the bird’s ability to learn to sing properly. This suggests that dopamine may be produced or transmitted differently in birds who learn to sing from in a social situation (from a live “tutor” bird) compared to those birds who learn to sing from a tape, which has been shown to inhibit proper song learning.

Ihle, E.C., Carillo, G.D., Giorgetti, M., Tecott, L., and Doupe, A.J. (2003). Measurement and manipulation of dopamine in the awake, behaving zebra finch basal ganglia. Society for Neuroscience Abstracts, 294.6.

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SPONSORED BY

The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation

The James S McDonnell Foundation