Network dynamics in the neural control of birdsong
Markowitz, Jeffrey Evan
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Sequences of stereotyped actions are central to the everyday lives of humans and animals, from the kingfisher's dive to the performance of a piano concerto. Lashley asked how neural circuits managed this feat nearly 6 decades ago, and to this day it remains a fundamental question in neuroscience. Toward answering this question, vocal performance in the songbird was used as a model to study the performance of learned, stereotyped motor sequences. The first component of this work considers the song motor cortical zone HVC in the zebra finch, an area that sends precise timing signals to both the descending motor pathway, responsible for stereotyped vocal performance in the adult, and the basal ganglia, which is responsible for both motor variability and song learning. Despite intense interest in HVC, previous research has exclusively focused on describing the activity of small numbers of neurons recorded serially as the bird sings. To better understand HVC network dynamics, both single units and local field potentials were sampled across multiple electrodes simultaneously in awake behaving zebra finches. The local field potential and spiking data reveal a stereotyped spatio-temporal pattern of inhibition operating on a 30 ms time-scale that coordinates the neural sequences in principal cells underlying song. The second component addresses the resilience of the song circuit through cutting the motor cortical zone HVC in half along one axis. Despite this large-scale perturbation, the finch quickly recovers and sings a near-perfect song within a single day. These first two studies suggest that HVC is functionally organized to robustly generate neural dynamics that enable vocal performance. The final component concerns a statistical study of the complex, flexible songs of the domesticated canary. This study revealed that canary song is characterized by specific long-range correlations up to 7 seconds long-a time-scale more typical of human music than animal vocalizations. Thus, the neural sequences underlying birdsong must be capable of generating more structure and complexity than previously thought.