Abstract rule neurons in the endbrain support intelligent behaviour in corvid songbirds

Nat Commun. 2013;4:2878. doi: 10.1038/ncomms3878.


Despite the lack of a layered neocortex and fundamental differences in endbrain organization in birds compared with mammals, intelligent species evolved from both vertebrate classes. Among birds, corvids show exceptional cognitive flexibility. Here we explore the neuronal foundation of corvid cognition by recording single-unit activity from an association area known as the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) while carrion crows make flexible rule-guided decisions, a hallmark of executive control functions. The most prevalent activity in NCL represents the behavioural rules, while abstracting over sample images and sensory modalities of the rule cues. Rule coding is weaker in error trials, thus predicting the crows' behavioural decisions. This suggests that the abstraction of general principles may be an important function of the NCL, mirroring the function of primate prefrontal cortex. These findings emphasize that intelligence in vertebrates does not necessarily rely on a neocortex but can be realized in endbrain circuitries that developed independently via convergent evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / cytology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition
  • Intelligence*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Songbirds / anatomy & histology
  • Songbirds / physiology*