Memory in the making: localized brain activation related to song learning in young songbirds

Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Nov 7;277(1698):3343-51. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0870. Epub 2010 Jun 9.


Songbird males learn to sing their songs from an adult 'tutor' early in life, much like human infants learn to speak. Similar to humans, in the songbird brain there are separate neural substrates for vocal production and for auditory memory. In adult songbirds, the caudal pallium, the avian equivalent of the auditory association cortex, has been proposed to contain the neural substrate of tutor song memory, while the song system is involved in song production as well as sensorimotor learning. If this hypothesis is correct, there should be neuronal activation in the caudal pallium, and not in the song system, while the young bird is hearing the tutor song. We found increased song-induced molecular neuronal activation, measured as the expression of an immediate early gene, in the caudal pallium of juvenile zebra finch males that were in the process of learning to sing their songs. No such activation was found in the song system. Molecular neuronal activation was significantly greater in response to tutor song than to novel song or silence in the medial part of the caudomedial nidopallium (NCM). In the caudomedial mesopallium, there was significantly greater molecular neuronal activation in response to tutor song than to silence. In addition, in the NCM there was a significant positive correlation between spontaneous molecular neuronal activation and the strength of song learning during sleep. These results suggest that the caudal pallium contains the neural substrate for tutor song memory, which is activated during sleep when the young bird is in the process of learning its song. The findings provide insight into the formation of auditory memories that guide vocal production learning, a process fundamental for human speech acquisition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Genes, Immediate-Early / genetics
  • Genes, Immediate-Early / physiology
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Songbirds / genetics
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Tape Recording
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*