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J Neurophysiol. 2011 Jul;106(1):386-97. doi: 10.1152/jn.00018.2011. Epub 2011 May 4.

Changes in the neural control of a complex motor sequence during learning.

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McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.


The acquisition of complex motor sequences often proceeds through trial-and-error learning, requiring the deliberate exploration of motor actions and the concomitant evaluation of the resulting performance. Songbirds learn their song in this manner, producing highly variable vocalizations as juveniles. As the song improves, vocal variability is gradually reduced until it is all but eliminated in adult birds. In the present study we examine how the motor program underlying such a complex motor behavior evolves during learning by recording from the robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA), a motor cortex analog brain region. In young birds, neurons in RA exhibited highly variable firing patterns that throughout development became more precise, sparse, and bursty. We further explored how the developing motor program in RA is shaped by its two main inputs: LMAN, the output nucleus of a basal ganglia-forebrain circuit, and HVC, a premotor nucleus. Pharmacological inactivation of LMAN during singing made the song-aligned firing patterns of RA neurons adultlike in their stereotypy without dramatically affecting the spike statistics or the overall firing patterns. Removing the input from HVC, on the other hand, resulted in a complete loss of stereotypy of both the song and the underlying motor program. Thus our results show that a basal ganglia-forebrain circuit drives motor exploration required for trial-and-error learning by adding variability to the developing motor program. As learning proceeds and the motor circuits mature, the relative contribution of LMAN is reduced, allowing the premotor input from HVC to drive an increasingly stereotyped song.

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