A simple computational principle predicts vocal adaptation dynamics across age and error size

Front Integr Neurosci. 2014 Sep 29;8:75. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2014.00075. eCollection 2014.


The brain uses sensory feedback to correct errors in behavior. Songbirds and humans acquire vocal behaviors by imitating the sounds produced by adults and rely on auditory feedback to correct vocal errors throughout their lifetimes. In both birds and humans, acoustic variability decreases steadily with age following the acquisition of vocal behavior. Prior studies in adults have shown that while sensory errors that fall within the limits of vocal variability evoke robust motor corrections, larger errors do not induce learning. Although such results suggest that younger animals, which have greater vocal variability, might correct large errors more readily than older individuals, it is unknown whether age-dependent changes in variability are accompanied by changes in the speed or magnitude of vocal error correction. We tested the hypothesis that auditory errors evoke greater vocal changes in younger animals and that a common computation determines how sensory information drives motor learning across different ages and error sizes. Consistent with our hypothesis, we found that in songbirds the speed and extent of error correction changes dramatically with age and that age-dependent differences in learning were predicted by a model in which the overlap between sensory errors and the distribution of prior sensory feedback determines the dynamics of adaptation. Our results suggest that the brain employs a simple and robust computational principle to calibrate the rate and magnitude of vocal adaptation across age-dependent changes in behavioral performance and in response to different sensory errors.

Keywords: age-related changes; error correction; pitch-shift; sensorimotor adaptation; sensorimotor integration; songbird; vocal learning.