From songs to synapses: molecular mechanisms of birdsong memory. Molecular mechanisms of auditory learning in songbirds involve immediate early genes, including zenk and arc, the ERK/MAPK pathway and synapsins

Bioessays. 2011 May;33(5):377-85. doi: 10.1002/bies.201000150. Epub 2011 Mar 7.


There are remarkable behavioral, neural, and genetic similarities between the way songbirds learn to sing and human infants learn to speak. Furthermore, the brain regions involved in birdsong learning, perception, and production have been identified and characterized in detail. In particular, the caudal medial nidopallium (the avian analog of the mammalian auditory-association cortex) has been found to contain the neural substrate of auditory memory, paving the way for analyses of the underlying molecular mechanisms. Recently, the zebra finch genome was sequenced, and annotated cDNA databases representing over 15,000 unique brain-expressed genes are available, enabling high-throughput gene expression analyses. Here we review the involvement of immediate early genes (e.g. zenk and arc), their downstream targets (e.g. synapsins), and their regulatory signaling pathways (e.g. MAPK/ERK) in songbird memory. We propose that in-depth investigations of zenk- and ERK-dependent cascades will help to further unravel the molecular basis of auditory memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / enzymology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / genetics
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism
  • Genes, Immediate-Early / genetics*
  • Genes, Immediate-Early / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / genetics
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Songbirds / genetics*
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Synapsins / genetics*
  • Synapsins / metabolism
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology


  • Synapsins
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases