Site-specific retinoic acid production in the brain of adult songbirds.

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2000-08

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Abstract

The song system of songbirds, a set of brain nuclei necessary for song learning and production, has distinctive morphological and functional properties. Utilizing differential display, we searched for molecular components involved in song system regulation. We identified a cDNA (zRalDH) that encodes a class 1 aldehyde dehydrogenase. zRalDH was highly expressed in various song nuclei and synthesized retinoic acid efficiently. Brain areas expressing zRalDH generated retinoic acid. Within song nucleus HVC, only projection neurons not undergoing adult neurogenesis expressed zRalDH. Blocking zRalDH activity in the HVC of juveniles interfered with normal song development. Our results provide conclusive evidence for localized retinoic acid synthesis in an adult vertebrate brain and indicate that the retinoic acid-generating system plays a significant role in the maturation of a learned behavior.

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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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