Birds, primates, and spoken language origins: behavioral phenotypes and neurobiological substrates.

Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience 01/2012; 4:12. DOI: 10.3389/fnevo.2012.00012
Source: PubMed

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.

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    ABSTRACT: Speech impairment is one of the most intriguing and least understood effects of alcohol on cognitive function, largely due to the lack of data on alcohol effects on vocalizations in the context of an appropriate experimental model organism. Zebra finches, a representative songbird and a premier model for understanding the neurobiology of vocal production and learning, learn song in a manner analogous to how humans learn speech. Here we show that when allowed access, finches readily drink alcohol, increase their blood ethanol concentrations (BEC) significantly, and sing a song with altered acoustic structure. The most pronounced effects were decreased amplitude and increased entropy, the latter likely reflecting a disruption in the birds' ability to maintain the spectral structure of song under alcohol. Furthermore, specific syllables, which have distinct acoustic structures, were differentially influenced by alcohol, likely reflecting a diversity in the neural mechanisms required for their production. Remarkably, these effects on vocalizations occurred without overt effects on general behavioral measures, and importantly, they occurred within a range of BEC that can be considered risky for humans. Our results suggest that the variable effects of alcohol on finch song reflect differential alcohol sensitivity of the brain circuitry elements that control different aspects of song production. They also point to finches as an informative model for understanding how alcohol affects the neuronal circuits that control the production of learned motor behaviors.
    PLoS ONE 12/2014; 9(12). · 3.53 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Many brain regions exhibit lateral differences in structure and function, and also incorporate new neurons in adulthood, thought to function in learning and in the formation of new memories. However, the contribution of new neurons to hemispheric differences in processing is unknown. The present study combines cellular, behavioral, and physiological methods to address whether 1) new neuron incorporation differs between the brain hemispheres, and 2) the degree to which hemispheric lateralization of new neurons correlates with behavioral and physiological measures of learning and memory. The songbird provides a model system for assessing the contribution of new neurons to hemispheric specialization because songbird brain areas for vocal processing are functionally lateralized and receive a continuous influx of new neurons in adulthood. In adult male zebra finches, we quantified new neurons in the caudomedial nidopallium (NCM), a forebrain area involved in discrimination and memory for the complex vocalizations of individual conspecifics. We assessed song learning and recorded neural responses to song in NCM. We found significantly more new neurons labeled in left than in right NCM; moreover, the degree of asymmetry in new neuron numbers was correlated with the quality of song learning and strength of neuronal memory for recently heard songs. In birds with experimentally impaired song quality, the hemispheric difference in new neurons was diminished. These results suggest that new neurons may contribute to an allocation of function between the hemispheres that underlies the learning and processing of complex signals.
    PLoS ONE 09/2014; 9(9):e108929. · 3.53 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Speech perception requires that sounds be transformed into speech-related objects with lexical and semantic meaning. It is unclear at what level in the auditory pathways this transformation emerges. Primary auditory cortex has been implicated in both representation of acoustic sound attributes and sound objects. While non-primary auditory cortex located on the posterolateral superior temporal gyrus (PLST) is clearly involved in acoustic-to-phonetic pre-lexical representations, it is unclear what role this region plays in auditory object formation. Additional data support the importance of prefrontal cortex in the formation of auditory objects, while other data would implicate this region in auditory object selection. To help clarify the respective roles of auditory and auditory-related cortex in the formation and selection of auditory objects, we examined high gamma activity simultaneously recorded directly from Heschl's gyrus (HG), PLST and prefrontal cortex, while subjects performed auditory semantic detection tasks. Subjects were patients undergoing evaluation for treatment of medically intractable epilepsy. We found that activity in posteromedial HG and early activity on PLST was robust to sound stimuli regardless of their context, and minimally modulated by tasks. Later activity on PLST could be strongly modulated by semantic context, but not by behavioral performance. Activity within prefrontal cortex also was related to semantic context, and did co-vary with behavior. We propose that activity in posteromedial HG and early activity on PLST primarily reflect the representation of spectrotemporal sound attributes. Later activity on PLST represents a pre-lexical processing stage and is an intermediate step in the formation of word objects. Activity in prefrontal cortex appears directly involved in word object selection. The roles of other auditory and auditory-related cortical areas in the formation of word objects remain to be explored.
    Frontiers in Neuroscience 08/2014; 8:240.

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