Genetic control of the assembly of circuits involved in vocal learning.
Vocal learning depends on the ability of brain circuits to perceive and imitate sound sequences and use these sequences for communication. Songbirds such as canaries and zebra finches have been a favorite experimental system for the study of vocal learning in animals for decades. These animals exhibit a robust and spontaneous vocal learning behavior, and they have dedicated brain circuits, known as the song system, that participate in the learning and production of song. Zebra finches listen to the songs that their fathers produce, and imitate these sounds until they acquire a stable adult-like song. In this respect, the time course and strategy of vocal learning in zebra finches is very similar to the manner in which human infants learn to speak. These observations suggest that the zebra finch could be an ideal system where to start investigating the genetic and biological basis of vocal learning. Recently, our laboratory has succeeded in the development of a series of techniques that allow us to genetically modify the brain of songbirds. These technical advances open new opportunities for the study of the relationship between genes and learning in an animal species with a robust behavioral repertoire. We are currently generating transgenic songbirds to manipulate key genes involved in the assembly of circuits involved in vocal learning behavior.