Basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuits are multistage loops critical to motor behavior, but the contributions of individual components to overall circuit function remain unclear. We addressed these issues in a songbird basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuit (the anterior forebrain pathway, AFP) specialized for singing and critical for vocal plasticity. The major known afferent to the AFP is the premotor cortical nucleus, HVC. Surprisingly, previous studies found that lesions of HVC alter song but do not eliminate the ability of the AFP to drive song production. We therefore used this AFP-driven song to investigate the role of basal ganglia and thalamus in vocal structure, tempo, and initiation. We found that lesions of the striatopallidal component (Area X) slowed song and simplified its acoustic structure. Elimination of the thalamic component (DLM) further simplified the acoustic structure of song and regularized its rhythm but also dramatically reduced song production. The acoustic structure changes imply that sequential stages of the AFP each add complexity to song, but the effects of DLM lesions on song initiation suggest that thalamus is a locus of additional inputs important to initiation. Together, our results highlight the cumulative contribution of stages of a basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuit to motor output along with distinct involvement of thalamus in song initiation or "gating."
Keywords: Area X; DLM; lesion; zebra finch.