Complex learned behavior is influenced throughout development by both genetic and environmental factors. Birdsong, like human speech, is a complex vocal behavior acquired through sensorimotor learning and is based on coordinated auditory input and vocal output to mimic tutor song. Song is primarily learned during a specific developmental stage called the critical period. Although auditory input is crucial for acquiring complex vocal patterns, its exact role in neural circuit maturation for vocal learning and production is not well understood. Using audition-deprived songbirds, we examined whether auditory experience affects developmental gene expression in the major elements of neural circuits that mediate vocal learning and production. Compared with intact zebra finches, early-deafened zebra finches showed excessively delayed vocal development, but their songs eventually crystallized. In contrast to the different rates of song development between the intact and deafened birds, developmental gene expression in the motor circuit is conserved in an age-dependent manner from the juvenile stage until the older adult stage, even in the deafened birds, which indicates the audition-independent robustness of gene expression dynamics during development. Furthermore, even after adult deafening, which degrades crystallized song, the deteriorated songs ultimately restabilized at the same point when the early-deafened birds stabilized their songs. These results indicate a genetic program-associated inevitable termination of vocal plasticity that results in audition-independent vocal crystallization.
Keywords: critical period; deaf; motor pattern generation; sensorimotor learning; songbird; species specificity.
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