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Physiol Rep. 2018 Apr;6(8):e13638. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13638.

Bidirectional scaling of vocal variability by an avian cortico-basal ganglia circuit.

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Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience, University of California, Los Angeles, California.
Undergraduate Interdepartmental Program for Neuroscience, University of California, Los Angeles, California.
Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, University of California, Los Angeles, California.
W. M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, and Scripps College, Claremont, California.


Behavioral variability is thought to be critical for trial and error learning, but where such motor exploration is generated in the central nervous system is unclear. The zebra finch songbird species offers a highly appropriate model in which to address this question. The male song is amenable to detailed measurements of variability, while the brain contains an identified cortico-basal ganglia loop that underlies this behavior. We used pharmacogenetic interventions to separately interrogate cortical and basal ganglia nodes of zebra finch song control circuitry. We show that bidirectional manipulations of each node produce near mirror image changes in vocal control: Cortical activity promotes song variability, whereas basal ganglia activity promotes song stability. Furthermore, female conspecifics can detect these pharmacogenetically elicited changes in song quality. Our results indicate that cortex and striatopallidum can jointly and reciprocally affect behaviorally relevant levels of vocal variability, and point to endogenous mechanisms for its control.


Birdsong; chemogenetics; motor control; variability; vocalization; zebra finch

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