Morphology of axonal projections from the high vocal center to vocal motor cortex in songbirds.
ABSTRACT Only birds that learn complex vocalizations have telencephalic brain regions that control vocal learning and production, including HVC (high vocal center), a cortical nucleus that encodes vocal motor output in adult songbirds. HVC projects to RA (robust nucleus of the arcopallium), a nucleus in motor cortex that in turn projects topographically onto hindbrain neurons innervating vocal muscles. Individual neurons projecting from HVC to RA (HVC(RA) ) fire sparsely to drive RA activity during song production. To advance understanding of how individual HVC neurons encode production of learned vocalizations, we reconstructed single HVC axons innervating RA in adult male zebra finches. Individual HVC(RA) axons were not topographically organized within RA: 1) axon arbors of HVC cell bodies located near each other sent branches to different subregions of RA, and 2) branches of single HVC axons terminated in different locations within RA. HVC(RA) axons also had a simple, sparse morphology, suggesting that a single HVC neuron activates a limited population of postsynaptic RA neurons. These morphological data are consistent with previous work showing that single HVC(RA) neurons burst sparsely for a brief period of time during the production of a song, indicating that ensembles of HVC(RA) neurons fire simultaneously to drive small temporal segments of song behavior. We also examined the morphology of axons projecting from HVC to RA cup, a region surrounding RA that receives input from auditory cortex. Axons projecting to RA cup also sent some branches into RA, suggesting direct integration between the sensory and motor circuits for song control.
Article: Birds, primates, and spoken language origins: behavioral phenotypes and neurobiological substrates.[show abstract] [hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Vocal learners such as humans and songbirds can learn to produce elaborate patterns of structurally organized vocalizations, whereas many other vertebrates such as non-human primates and most other bird groups either cannot or do so to a very limited degree. To explain the similarities among humans and vocal-learning birds and the differences with other species, various theories have been proposed. One set of theories are motor theories, which underscore the role of the motor system as an evolutionary substrate for vocal production learning. For instance, the motor theory of speech and song perception proposes enhanced auditory perceptual learning of speech in humans and song in birds, which suggests a considerable level of neurobiological specialization. Another, a motor theory of vocal learning origin, proposes that the brain pathways that control the learning and production of song and speech were derived from adjacent motor brain pathways. Another set of theories are cognitive theories, which address the interface between cognition and the auditory-vocal domains to support language learning in humans. Here we critically review the behavioral and neurobiological evidence for parallels and differences between the so-called vocal learners and vocal non-learners in the context of motor and cognitive theories. In doing so, we note that behaviorally vocal-production learning abilities are more distributed than categorical, as are the auditory-learning abilities of animals. We propose testable hypotheses on the extent of the specializations and cross-species correspondences suggested by motor and cognitive theories. We believe that determining how spoken language evolved is likely to become clearer with concerted efforts in testing comparative data from many non-human animal species.Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience 01/2012; 4:12.