The activity of midbrain dopaminergic neurons and their projection to the basal ganglia (BG) are thought to play a critical role in the acquisition of motor skills through reinforcement learning, as well as in the expression of learned motor behaviors. The precise role of BG dopamine (DA) in mediating and modulating motor performance and learning, however, remains unclear. In songbirds, a specialized portion of the BG is responsible for song learning and plasticity. Previously we found that DA acts on D1 receptors in Area X to modulate the BG output signal and thereby trigger changes in song variability. Here, we investigate the effect of D1 receptor blockade in the BG on song behavior in the zebra finch. We report that this manipulation abolishes social context-dependent changes in variability not only in harmonic stacks, but also in other types of syllables. However, song timing seems not to be modulated by this BG DA signal. Indeed, injections of a D1 antagonist in the BG altered neither song duration nor the change of song duration with social context. Finally, D1 receptor activation in the BG was not necessary for the modulation of other features of song, such as the number of introductory notes or motif repetitions. Together, our results suggest that activation of D1 receptors in the BG is necessary for the modulation of fine acoustic features of song with social context, while it is not involved in the regulation of song timing and structure at a larger time scale.
Published 2012. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.