Assessing visual requirements for social context-dependent activation of the songbird song system.

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Social context has been shown to have a profound influence on brain activation in a wide range of vertebrate species. Best studied in songbirds, when males sing undirected song, the level of neural activity and expression of immediate early genes (IEGs) in several song nuclei is dramatically higher or lower than when they sing directed song to other birds, particularly females. This differential social context-dependent activation is independent of auditory input and is not simply dependent on the motor act of singing. These findings suggested that the critical sensory modality driving social context-dependent differences in the brain could be visual cues. Here, we tested this hypothesis by examining IEG activation in song nuclei in hemispheres to which visual input was normal or blocked. We found that covering one eye blocked visually induced IEG expression throughout both contralateral visual pathways of the brain, and reduced activation of the contralateral ventral tegmental area, a non-visual midbrain motivation-related area affected by social context. However, blocking visual input had no effect on the social context-dependent activation of the contralateral song nuclei during female-directed singing. Our findings suggest that individual sensory modalities are not direct driving forces for the social context differences in song nuclei during singing. Rather, these social context differences in brain activation appear to depend more on the general sense that another individual is present.





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Hara, Erina, Lubica Kubikova, Neal A Hessler and Erich D Jarvis (2009). Assessing visual requirements for social context-dependent activation of the songbird song system. Proc Biol Sci, 276(1655). pp. 279–289. 10.1098/rspb.2008.1138 Retrieved from

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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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