Songbirds produce a complex, learned sequential behavior that shares features with the most intriguing human behaviors, such as speech, musical performance and even thinking and planning. There is no other model organism in neuroscience that provides this unique combination of sophisticated behavior and access to the underlying brain circuits. Birdsong, like many complex human behaviors, is not innate but is learned by imitating the behavior of parents and other individuals. We have previously identified circuits in the bird’s brain that power this remarkable behavior. For example, we have found that a circuit, called HVC, serves as the clock, controlling the timing of song. We have also discovered that another circuit, LMAN, drives “babbling” in young birds, allowing them to explore different sounds as they learn to sing. These are examples of circuits that internally generate dynamic, varying patterns of neural activity—the engines that make our brains run. We are developing new technologies to simultaneously record from many neurons in singing birds, and working with theoretical neuroscientists to develop mathematical models of how these circuits function and how they emerge during development.
Michale Fee, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)