Advantages of comparative studies in songbirds to understand the neural basis of sensorimotor integration

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Aug 1;118(2):800-816. doi: 10.1152/jn.00623.2016. Epub 2017 Mar 22.


Sensorimotor integration is the process through which the nervous system creates a link between motor commands and associated sensory feedback. This process allows for the acquisition and refinement of many behaviors, including learned communication behaviors such as speech and birdsong. Consequently, it is important to understand fundamental mechanisms of sensorimotor integration, and comparative analyses of this process can provide vital insight. Songbirds offer a powerful comparative model system to study how the nervous system links motor and sensory information for learning and control. This is because the acquisition, maintenance, and control of birdsong critically depend on sensory feedback. Furthermore, there is an incredible diversity of song organizations across songbird species, ranging from songs with simple, stereotyped sequences to songs with complex sequencing of vocal gestures, as well as a wide diversity of song repertoire sizes. Despite this diversity, the neural circuitry for song learning, control, and maintenance remains highly similar across species. Here, we highlight the utility of songbirds for the analysis of sensorimotor integration and the insights about mechanisms of sensorimotor integration gained by comparing different songbird species. Key conclusions from this comparative analysis are that variation in song sequence complexity seems to covary with the strength of feedback signals in sensorimotor circuits and that sensorimotor circuits contain distinct representations of elements in the vocal repertoire, possibly enabling evolutionary variation in repertoire sizes. We conclude our review by highlighting important areas of research that could benefit from increased comparative focus, with particular emphasis on the integration of new technologies.

Keywords: communication; corollary discharge; learning; sensorimotor; songbird.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*