Motor-driven gene expression.

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1997-04-15

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Abstract

There is increased neuronal firing in the high vocal center (a motor nucleus) and other song nuclei of canaries, Serinus canaria, and zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata, whenever these songbirds sing or hear song. These observations suggested that song perception involved sensory and motor pathways. We now show that the act of singing, but not hearing song, induces a rapid and striking increase (up to 60-fold) in expression of the transcriptional regulator ZENK in the high vocal center and other song nuclei. This motor-driven gene expression is independent of auditory feedback, since it occurs in deafened birds when they sing and in muted birds when they produce silent song. Conversely, hearing song, but not the act of singing, induces ZENK expression in parts of the auditory forebrain. Our observations show that even though the same auditory stimulus activates sensory and motor pathways, perception and production of song are accompanied by anatomically distinct patterns of gene expression.

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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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