Neural coding of syntactic structure in learned vocalizations in the songbird

J Neurosci. 2011 Jul 6;31(27):10023-33. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1606-11.2011.


Although vocal signals including human languages are composed of a finite number of acoustic elements, complex and diverse vocal patterns can be created from combinations of these elements, linked together by syntactic rules. To enable such syntactic vocal behaviors, neural systems must extract the sequence patterns from auditory information and establish syntactic rules to generate motor commands for vocal organs. However, the neural basis of syntactic processing of learned vocal signals remains largely unknown. Here we report that the basal ganglia projecting premotor neurons (HVC(X) neurons) in Bengalese finches represent syntactic rules that generate variable song sequences. When vocalizing an alternative transition segment between song elements called syllables, sparse burst spikes of HVC(X) neurons code the identity of a specific syllable type or a specific transition direction among the alternative trajectories. When vocalizing a variable repetition sequence of the same syllable, HVC(X) neurons not only signal the initiation and termination of the repetition sequence but also indicate the progress and state-of-completeness of the repetition. These different types of syntactic information are frequently integrated within the activity of single HVC(X) neurons, suggesting that syntactic attributes of the individual neurons are not programmed as a basic cellular subtype in advance but acquired in the course of vocal learning and maturation. Furthermore, some auditory-vocal mirroring type HVC(X) neurons display transition selectivity in the auditory phase, much as they do in the vocal phase, suggesting that these songbirds may extract syntactic rules from auditory experience and apply them to form their own vocal behaviors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception
  • Basal Ganglia / cytology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Sound Localization / physiology*
  • Sound Spectrography / methods