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J Comp Neurol. 2004 Aug 9;476(1):44-64.

Differential expression of glutamate receptors in avian neural pathways for learned vocalization.

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  • 1Department of Neurobiology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.


Learned vocalization, the substrate for human language, is a rare trait. It is found in three distantly related groups of birds-parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds. These three groups contain cerebral vocal nuclei for learned vocalization not found in their more closely related vocal nonlearning relatives. Here, we cloned 21 receptor subunits/subtypes of all four glutamate receptor families (AMPA, kainate, NMDA, and metabotropic) and examined their expression in vocal nuclei of songbirds. We also examined expression of a subset of these receptors in vocal nuclei of hummingbirds and parrots, as well as in the brains of dove species as examples of close vocal nonlearning relatives. Among the 21 subunits/subtypes, 19 showed higher and/or lower prominent differential expression in songbird vocal nuclei relative to the surrounding brain subdivisions in which the vocal nuclei are located. This included relatively lower levels of all four AMPA subunits in lMAN, strikingly higher levels of the kainite subunit GluR5 in the robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA), higher and lower levels respectively of the NMDA subunits NR2A and NR2B in most vocal nuclei and lower levels of the metabotropic group I subtypes (mGluR1 and -5) in most vocal nuclei and the group II subtype (mGluR2), showing a unique expression pattern of very low levels in RA and very high levels in HVC. The splice variants of AMPA subunits showed further differential expression in vocal nuclei. Some of the receptor subunits/subtypes also showed differential expression in hummingbird and parrot vocal nuclei. The magnitude of differential expression in vocal nuclei of all three vocal learners was unique compared with the smaller magnitude of differences found for nonvocal areas of vocal learners and vocal nonlearners. Our results suggest that evolution of vocal learning was accompanied by differential expression of a conserved gene family for synaptic transmission and plasticity in vocal nuclei. They also suggest that neural activity and signal transduction in vocal nuclei of vocal learners will be different relative to the surrounding brain areas.

Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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