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ILAR J. 2010;51(4):378-86.

Sleep, learning, and birdsong.

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Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago, 1027 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Neuroethological research combines approaches derived from animal behavior and neurobiology to examine the neuronal mechanisms of behavior, often in the context of laboratory experiments on species chosen for particular adaptations. Typically, these species are not traditional laboratory animals yet they contribute greatly to a broad, evolutionarily diverse view of nervous system function. The surprising role of sleep in the vocal learning process of songbirds is one such example, described here. Juvenile zebra finches show sleep-dependent daytime fluctuations in their patterns of singing starting after their first exposure to tutor songs. Nighttime bursting activity in the vocal control song system also changes after the onset of tutoring, with the neuronal changes preceding the changes in objective behavior (daytime singing). After tutoring, the nighttime bursting increases and exhibits structure that depends on the particular tutor song, and the nighttime expression of these changes requires normal auditory feedback during daytime singing. These observations shed light on the information carried in neuronal activity during sleep and on the adaptive plastic mechanisms engaged during sleep. They suggest a new hypothesis of sensorimotor learning, whereby sensory memories act indirectly on sensorimotor feedback by modifying networks through plastic changes at night. Sleep may also contribute to adult song maintenance, with nighttime neuronal replay conveying information about songs produced during the day and possibly mediating daily changes in the structure of premotor bursts. Collectively, these insights contribute a comparative perspective to theories of sleep and memory, which also help to inform a developing understanding of how humans acquire and retain memories.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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