Convergent differential regulation of SLIT-ROBO axon guidance genes in the brains of vocal learners.

Abstract

Only a few distantly related mammals and birds have the trait of complex vocal learning, which is the ability to imitate novel sounds. This ability is critical for speech acquisition and production in humans, and is attributed to specialized forebrain vocal control circuits that have several unique connections relative to adjacent brain circuits. As a result, it has been hypothesized that there could exist convergent changes in genes involved in neural connectivity of vocal learning circuits. In support of this hypothesis, expanding on our related study (Pfenning et al. [2014] Science 346: 1256846), here we show that the forebrain part of this circuit that makes a relatively rare direct connection to brainstem vocal motor neurons in independent lineages of vocal learning birds (songbird, parrot, and hummingbird) has specialized regulation of axon guidance genes from the SLIT-ROBO molecular pathway. The SLIT1 ligand was differentially downregulated in the motor song output nucleus that makes the direct projection, whereas its receptor ROBO1 was developmentally upregulated during critical periods for vocal learning. Vocal nonlearning bird species and male mice, which have much more limited vocal plasticity and associated circuits, did not show comparable specialized regulation of SLIT-ROBO genes in their nonvocal motor cortical regions. These findings are consistent with SLIT and ROBO gene dysfunctions associated with autism, dyslexia, and speech sound language disorders and suggest that convergent evolution of vocal learning was associated with convergent changes in the SLIT-ROBO axon guidance pathway.

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Published Version (Please cite this version)

10.1002/cne.23719

Publication Info

Wang, Rui, Chun-Chun Chen, Erina Hara, Miriam V Rivas, Petra L Roulhac, Jason T Howard, Mukta Chakraborty, Jean-Nicolas Audet, et al. (2015). Convergent differential regulation of SLIT-ROBO axon guidance genes in the brains of vocal learners. J Comp Neurol, 523(6). pp. 892–906. 10.1002/cne.23719 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11125.

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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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