Variations on a theme: Songbirds, variability, and sensorimotor error correction

Neuroscience. 2015 Jun 18;296:48-54. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.09.068. Epub 2014 Oct 14.


Songbirds provide a powerful animal model for investigating how the brain uses sensory feedback to correct behavioral errors. Here, we review a recent study in which we used online manipulations of auditory feedback to quantify the relationship between sensory error size, motor variability, and vocal plasticity. We found that although inducing small auditory errors evoked relatively large compensatory changes in behavior, as error size increased the magnitude of error correction declined. Furthermore, when we induced large errors such that auditory signals no longer overlapped with the baseline distribution of feedback, the magnitude of error correction approached zero. This pattern suggests a simple and robust strategy for the brain to maintain the accuracy of learned behaviors by evaluating sensory signals relative to the previously experienced distribution of feedback. Drawing from recent studies of auditory neurophysiology and song discrimination, we then speculate as to the mechanistic underpinnings of the results obtained in our behavioral experiments. Finally, we review how our own and other studies exploit the strengths of the songbird system, both in the specific context of vocal systems and more generally as a model of the neural control of complex behavior.

Keywords: animal models; sensorimotor learning; sensory feedback; songbird; variability; vocal control.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Finches / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Animal
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*