Emergence of learned categorical representations within an auditory forebrain circuit

J Neurosci. 2011 Feb 16;31(7):2595-606. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3930-10.2011.


Many learned behaviors are thought to require the activity of high-level neurons that represent categories of complex signals, such as familiar faces or native speech sounds. How these complex, experience-dependent neural responses emerge within the brain's circuitry is not well understood. The caudomedial mesopallium (CMM), a secondary auditory region in the songbird brain, contains neurons that respond to specific combinations of song components and respond preferentially to the songs that birds have learned to recognize. Here, we examine the transformation of these learned responses across a broader forebrain circuit that includes the caudolateral mesopallium (CLM), an auditory region that provides input to CMM. We recorded extracellular single-unit activity in CLM and CMM in European starlings trained to recognize sets of conspecific songs and compared multiple encoding properties of neurons between these regions. We find that the responses of CMM neurons are more selective between song components, convey more information about song components, and are more variable over repeated components than the responses of CLM neurons. While learning enhances neural encoding of song components in both regions, CMM neurons encode more information about the learned categories associated with songs than do CLM neurons. Collectively, these data suggest that CLM and CMM are part of a functional sensory hierarchy that is modified by learning to yield representations of natural vocal signals that are increasingly informative with respect to behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Probability
  • Prosencephalon / cytology
  • Prosencephalon / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Starlings
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*