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Neuron. 2013 Oct 16;80(2):494-506. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.07.049. Epub 2013 Sep 26.

The basal ganglia is necessary for learning spectral, but not temporal, features of birdsong.

Author information

Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Program in Neuroscience, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Swartz Program in Theoretical Neuroscience Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Contributed equally


Executing a motor skill requires the brain to control which muscles to activate at what times. How these aspects of control-motor implementation and timing-are acquired, and whether the learning processes underlying them differ, is not well understood. To address this, we used a reinforcement learning paradigm to independently manipulate both spectral and temporal features of birdsong, a complex learned motor sequence, while recording and perturbing activity in underlying circuits. Our results uncovered a striking dissociation in how neural circuits underlie learning in the two domains. The basal ganglia was required for modifying spectral, but not temporal, structure. This functional dissociation extended to the descending motor pathway, where recordings from a premotor cortex analog nucleus reflected changes to temporal, but not spectral, structure. Our results reveal a strategy in which the nervous system employs different and largely independent circuits to learn distinct aspects of a motor skill.

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