Variability in action: Contributions of a songbird cortical-basal ganglia circuit to vocal motor learning and control

Neuroscience. 2015 Jun 18:296:39-47. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.10.010. Epub 2014 Oct 18.


Many motor behaviors, from walking to speaking, are acquired through experience, in particular, through trial-and-error learning. The acquisition and maintenance of such motor behaviors in a wide range of species, including humans, appear to depend on cortical-basal ganglia circuits. In this review, we discuss recent studies in songbirds that have been pivotal in informing our current understanding of motor learning and cortical-basal ganglia function. Songbirds are important ethological model systems for the study of motor learning because young songbirds naturally develop and refine their songs through trial-and-error learning. In addition, reinforcement mechanisms are hypothesized to be important for the maintenance and plasticity of structured adult song. Computational and experimental studies highlight the importance of vocal motor variability as the substrate upon which reinforcement mechanisms could operate to shape developing song and to maintain adult song. Recent studies in songbirds indicate that this vocal motor variability is actively generated and modulated by a highly specialized cortical-basal ganglia circuit evolved for a single behavior, song. We argue that these and other recent findings illustrate how the tight association between a specialized neural circuit and a natural behavior make songbirds a unique and powerful model in which to investigate the neural substrates of motor learning and plasticity.

Keywords: basal ganglia; reinforcement learning; songbird; variability.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Animal
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*