Learned birdsong and the neurobiology of human language.

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2004-06

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Abstract

Vocal learning, the substrate for human language, is a rare trait found to date in only three distantly related groups of mammals (humans, bats, and cetaceans) and three distantly related groups of birds (parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds). Brain pathways for vocal learning have been studied in the three bird groups and in humans. Here I present a hypothesis on the relationships and evolution of brain pathways for vocal learning among birds and humans. The three vocal learning bird groups each appear to have seven similar but not identical cerebral vocal nuclei distributed into two vocal pathways, one posterior and one anterior. Humans also appear to have a posterior vocal pathway, which includes projections from the face motor cortex to brainstem vocal lower motor neurons, and an anterior vocal pathway, which includes a strip of premotor cortex, the anterior basal ganglia, and the anterior thalamus. These vocal pathways are not found in vocal non-learning birds or mammals, but are similar to brain pathways used for other types of learning. Thus, I argue that if vocal learning evolved independently among birds and humans, then it did so under strong genetic constraints of a pre-existing basic neural network of the vertebrate brain.

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10.1196/annals.1298.038

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Jarvis, Erich D (2004). Learned birdsong and the neurobiology of human language. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1016. pp. 749–777. 10.1196/annals.1298.038 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11230.

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Jarvis

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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