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Dev Neurobiol. 2009 Oct;69(12):796-810. doi: 10.1002/dneu.20739.

Daily and developmental modulation of "premotor" activity in the birdsong system.

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Department of Neuroscience and Center for Neurobehavioral Development, University of Minnesota Academic Health Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.


Human speech and birdsong are shaped during a sensorimotor sensitive period in which auditory feedback guides vocal learning. To study brain activity as song learning occurred, we recorded longitudinally from developing zebra finches during the sensorimotor phase. Learned sequences of vocalizations (motifs) were examined along with contemporaneous neural population activity in the song nucleus HVC, which is necessary for the production of learned song (Nottebohm et al. 1976: J Comp Neurol 165:457-486; Simpson and Vicario 1990: J Neurosci 10:1541-1556). During singing, HVC activity levels increased as the day progressed and decreased after a night of sleep in juveniles and adults. In contrast, the pattern of HVC activity changed on a daily basis only in juveniles: activity bursts became more pronounced during the day. The HVC of adults was significantly burstier than that of juveniles. HVC bursting was relevant to song behavior because the degree of burstiness inversely correlated with the variance of song features in juveniles. The song of juveniles degrades overnight (Deregnaucourt et al. 2005: Nature 433:710-716). Consistent with a relationship between HVC activity and song plasticity (Day et al. 2008: J Neurophys 100:2956-2965), HVC burstiness degraded overnight in young juveniles and the amount of overnight degradation declined with developmental song learning. Nocturnal changes in HVC activity strongly and inversely correlated with the next day's change, suggesting that sleep-dependent degradation of HVC activity may facilitate or enable subsequent diurnal changes. Collectively, these data show that HVC activity levels exhibit daily cycles in adults and juveniles, whereas HVC burstiness and song stereotypy change daily in juveniles only. In addition, the data indicate that HVC burstiness increases with development and inversely correlates with song variability, which is necessary for trial and error vocal learning.

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