Control of vocal and respiratory patterns in birdsong: dissection of forebrain and brainstem mechanisms using temperature

PLoS One. 2011;6(9):e25461. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025461. Epub 2011 Sep 28.


Learned motor behaviors require descending forebrain control to be coordinated with midbrain and brainstem motor systems. In songbirds, such as the zebra finch, regular breathing is controlled by brainstem centers, but when the adult songbird begins to sing, its breathing becomes tightly coordinated with forebrain-controlled vocalizations. The periods of silence (gaps) between song syllables are typically filled with brief breaths, allowing the bird to sing uninterrupted for many seconds. While substantial progress has been made in identifying the brain areas and pathways involved in vocal and respiratory control, it is not understood how respiratory and vocal control is coordinated by forebrain motor circuits. Here we combine a recently developed technique for localized brain cooling, together with recordings of thoracic air sac pressure, to examine the role of cortical premotor nucleus HVC (proper name) in respiratory-vocal coordination. We found that HVC cooling, in addition to slowing all song timescales as previously reported, also increased the duration of expiratory pulses (EPs) and inspiratory pulses (IPs). Expiratory pulses, like song syllables, were stretched uniformly by HVC cooling, but most inspiratory pulses exhibited non-uniform stretch of pressure waveform such that the majority of stretch occurred late in the IP. Indeed, some IPs appeared to change duration by the earlier or later truncation of an underlying inspiratory event. These findings are consistent with the idea that during singing the temporal structure of EPs is under the direct control of forebrain circuits, whereas that of IPs can be strongly influenced by circuits downstream of HVC, likely in the brainstem. An analysis of the temporal jitter of respiratory and vocal structure suggests that IPs may be initiated by HVC at the end of each syllable and terminated by HVC immediately before the onset of the next syllable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / cytology
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Exhalation / physiology
  • Finches / physiology*
  • Inhalation / physiology
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / cytology
  • Motor Cortex / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Pressure
  • Prosencephalon / cytology
  • Prosencephalon / physiology*
  • Respiration*
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • Temperature*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*