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Neuroscience. 2019 Jun 15;409:222-234. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2019.01.056. Epub 2019 Feb 10.

Auditory-Motor Matching in Vocal Recognition and Imitative Learning.

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Max Planck for the Science of Human History, DLCE Department, Jena, Kahlaische Str 10, 07745, Germany. Electronic address:
Faculty of Science, Department of Biological Sciences, Hokkaido University, Kita-10 Nishi-8 Kita-ku, Sapporo 060-0810, Japan.
Department of Life Sciences, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo, 153-8902 Tokyo, Japan.
RIKEN Center for Brain Science, 351-0106 Saitama Prefecture, Wako, Hirosawa, Japan.
Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Parma, via Volturno, 43125, Italy; Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jannerod, CNRS/Universite' Claude Bernard Lyon, 67 Pd Pinel 69675, Bron Cedex, France.


Songbirds possess mirror neurons (MNs) activating during the perception and execution of specific features of songs. These neurons are located in high vocal center (HVC), a premotor nucleus implicated in song perception, production and learning, making worth to inquire their properties and functions in vocal recognition and imitative learning. By integrating a body of brain and behavioral data, we discuss neurophysiology, anatomical, computational properties and possible functions of songbird MNs. We state that the neurophysiological properties of songbird MNs depends on sensorimotor regions that are outside the auditory neural system. Interestingly, songbirds MNs can be the result of the specific type of song representation possessed by some songbird species. At the functional level, we discuss whether songbird MNs are involved in others' song recognition, by dissecting the function of recognition in various different but possible overlapping processes: action-oriented perception, discriminative-oriented perception and identification of the signaler. We conclude that songbird MNs may be involved in recognizing other singer's vocalizations, while their role in imitative learning still require to solve how auditory feedback are used to correct own vocal performance to match the tutor song. Finally, we compare songbird and human mirror responses, hypothesizing a case of convergent evolution, and proposing new experimental directions.


imitative learning; internal models; interspecies variability; mirror neurons; songbirds; vocal recognition

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