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J Neurophysiol. 2010 Nov;104(5):2474-86. doi: 10.1152/jn.00977.2009. Epub 2010 Sep 8.

Activity in a cortical-basal ganglia circuit for song is required for social context-dependent vocal variability.

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Department of Psychiatry, W. M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143-0444, USA.


Variability in adult motor output is important for enabling animals to respond to changing external conditions. Songbirds are useful for studying variability because they alter the amount of variation in their song depending on social context. When an adult zebra finch male sings to a female ("directed"), his song is highly stereotyped, but when he sings alone ("undirected"), his song varies across renditions. Lesions of the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium (LMAN), the output nucleus of a cortical-basal ganglia circuit for song, reduce song variability to that of the stereotyped "performance" state. However, such lesions not only eliminate LMAN's synaptic input to its targets, but can also cause structural or physiological changes in connected brain regions, and thus cannot assess whether the acute activity of LMAN is important for social modulation of adult song variability. To evaluate the effects of ongoing LMAN activity, we reversibly silenced LMAN in singing zebra finches by bilateral reverse microdialysis of the GABA(A) receptor agonist muscimol. We found that LMAN inactivation acutely reduced undirected song variability, both across and even within syllable renditions, to the level of directed song variability in all birds examined. Song variability returned to pre-muscimol inactivation levels after drug washout. However, unlike LMAN lesions, LMAN inactivation did not eliminate social context effects on song tempo in adult birds. These results indicate that the activity of LMAN neurons acutely and actively generates social context-dependent increases in adult song variability but that social regulation of tempo is more complex.

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