Developmental plasticity in neural circuits for a learned behavior

Annu Rev Neurosci. 1997:20:459-81. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.20.1.459.


The neural substrate underlying learned vocal behavior in songbirds provides a textbook illustration of anatomical localization of function for a complex learned behavior in vertebrates. The song-control system has become an important model for studying neural systems related to learning, behavior, and development. The song system of zebra finches is characterized by a heightened capacity for both neural and behavioral change during development and has taught us valuable information regarding sensitive periods, rearrangement of synaptic connections, topographic specificity, cell death and neurogenesis, experience-dependent neural plasticity, and sexual differentiation. The song system differs in some interesting ways from some well-studied mammalian model systems and thus offers fresh perspectives on specific theoretical issues. In this highly selective review, we concentrate on two major questions: What are the developmental changes in the song system responsible for song learning and the restriction of learning to a sensitive period, and what factors explain the highly sexually dimorphic development of this system? We discuss the important role of sex steroid hormones and of neurotrophins in creating a male-typical neural song circuit (which can learn to produce complex vocalizations) instead of a reduced, female-typical song circuit that does not produce learned song.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*