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Song Practice Promotes Acute Vocal Variability at a Key Stage of Sensorimotor Learning

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008592
  • Research Article
  • Neuroscience
  • Evolutionary Biology/Animal Behavior
  • Neuroscience/Animal Cognition
  • Neuroscience/Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience/Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience/Motor Systems
  • Neuroscience/Neurodevelopment
  • Linguistics


Background Trial by trial variability during motor learning is a feature encoded by the basal ganglia of both humans and songbirds, and is important for reinforcement of optimal motor patterns, including those that produce speech and birdsong. Given the many parallels between these behaviors, songbirds provide a useful model to investigate neural mechanisms underlying vocal learning. In juvenile and adult male zebra finches, endogenous levels of FoxP2, a molecule critical for language, decrease two hours after morning song onset within area X, part of the basal ganglia-forebrain pathway dedicated to song. In juveniles, experimental ‘knockdown’ of area X FoxP2 results in abnormally variable song in adulthood. These findings motivated our hypothesis that low FoxP2 levels increase vocal variability, enabling vocal motor exploration in normal birds. Methodology/Principal Findings After two hours in either singing or non-singing conditions (previously shown to produce differential area X FoxP2 levels), phonological and sequential features of the subsequent songs were compared across conditions in the same bird. In line with our prediction, analysis of songs sung by 75 day (75d) birds revealed that syllable structure was more variable and sequence stereotypy was reduced following two hours of continuous practice compared to these features following two hours of non-singing. Similar trends in song were observed in these birds at 65d, despite higher overall within-condition variability at this age. Conclusions/Significance Together with previous work, these findings point to the importance of behaviorally-driven acute periods during song learning that allow for both refinement and reinforcement of motor patterns. Future work is aimed at testing the observation that not only does vocal practice influence expression of molecular networks, but that these networks then influence subsequent variability in these skills.

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