Zebra finches first form demonstrable memories of specific songs between 25 and 35 days of age--several days after fledging from the nest. What accounts for the late onset of specific song memory formation? Here we investigated physiological development of the caudomedial neostriatum (NCM), part of the avian analogue of auditory cortex and a probable component of the system involved in song perception. Two types of physiological responses were characterized: electrophysiological (single-unit spike rate) and genomic (induction of the immediate early gene zenk, also known as zif-268, egr-1, ngfi-a, krox-24). We found that by day 20, zebra finches already have robust electrophysiological responses in NCM to song stimulation. Spike activity was greater in response to conspecific songs compared to heterospecific songs, white noise, or tones, and approximately 10% of the units showed selective responses to forward versus reversed songs. In contrast, at this age the zenk gene is expressed at a constitutively high level and undergoes no further induction in response to song presentation. At day 30, electrophysiological responses remained similar, but the zenk gene began to shift from a constitutive to an inducible pattern of expression. These results are consistent with a general role for NCM in the representation of song auditory patterns, and with a role for zenk gene expression in governing the efficiency of specific song memory storage at different ages.
Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.