NSF workshop report: discovering general principles of nervous system organization by comparing brain maps across species.


Efforts to understand nervous system structure and function have received new impetus from the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Comparative analyses can contribute to this effort by leading to the discovery of general principles of neural circuit design, information processing, and gene-structure-function relationships that are not apparent from studies on single species. We here propose to extend the comparative approach to nervous system 'maps' comprising molecular, anatomical, and physiological data. This research will identify which neural features are likely to generalize across species, and which are unlikely to be broadly conserved. It will also suggest causal relationships between genes, development, adult anatomy, physiology, and, ultimately, behavior. These causal hypotheses can then be tested experimentally. Finally, insights from comparative research can inspire and guide technological development. To promote this research agenda, we recommend that teams of investigators coalesce around specific research questions and select a set of 'reference species' to anchor their comparative analyses. These reference species should be chosen not just for practical advantages, but also with regard for their phylogenetic position, behavioral repertoire, well-annotated genome, or other strategic reasons. We envision that the nervous systems of these reference species will be mapped in more detail than those of other species. The collected data may range from the molecular to the behavioral, depending on the research question. To integrate across levels of analysis and across species, standards for data collection, annotation, archiving, and distribution must be developed and respected. To that end, it will help to form networks or consortia of researchers and centers for science, technology, and education that focus on organized data collection, distribution, and training. These activities could be supported, at least in part, through existing mechanisms at NSF, NIH, and other agencies. It will also be important to develop new integrated software and database systems for cross-species data analyses. Multidisciplinary efforts to develop such analytical tools should be supported financially. Finally, training opportunities should be created to stimulate multidisciplinary, integrative research into brain structure, function, and evolution.





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Publication Info

Striedter, Georg F, T Grant Belgard, Chun-Chun Chen, Fred P Davis, Barbara L Finlay, Onur Güntürkün, Melina E Hale, Julie A Harris, et al. (2014). NSF workshop report: discovering general principles of nervous system organization by comparing brain maps across species. Brain Behav Evol, 83(1). pp. 1–8. 10.1159/000360152 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11198.

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Erich David Jarvis

Adjunct Professor in the Deptartment of Neurobiology

Dr. Jarvis' laboratory studies the neurobiology of vocal communication. Emphasis is placed on the molecular pathways involved in the perception and production of learned vocalizations. They use an integrative approach that combines behavioral, anatomical, electrophysiological and molecular biological techniques. The main animal model used is songbirds, one of the few vertebrate groups that evolved the ability to learn vocalizations. The generality of the discoveries is tested in other vocal learning orders, such as parrots and hummingbirds, as well as non-vocal learners, such as pigeons and non-human primates. Some of the questions require performing behavior/molecular biology experiments in freely ranging animals, such as hummingbirds in tropical forest of Brazil. Recent results show that in songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds, perception and production of song are accompanied by anatomically distinct patterns of gene expression. All three groups were found to exhibit vocally-activated gene expression in exactly 7 forebrain nuclei that are very similar to each other. These structures for vocal learning and production are thought to have evolved independently within the past 70 million years, since they are absent from interrelated non-vocal learning orders. One structure, Area X of the basal ganglia's striatum in songbirds, shows large differential gene activation depending on the social context in which the bird sings. These differences may reflect a semantic content of song, perhaps similar to human language.

The overall goal of the research is to advance knowledge of the neural mechanisms for vocal learning and basic mechanisms of brain function. These goals are further achieved by combined collaborative efforts with the laboratories of Drs. Mooney and Nowicki at Duke University, who study respectively behavior and electrophysiological aspects of songbird vocal communication.

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