Research Article

Inception of memories that guide vocal learning in the songbird

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Science  04 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6461, pp. 83-89
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw4226

An imitation circuit

Animals, including humans, rely heavily on imitation and social learning, yet we know little about how this process operates in the brain. Zhao et al. used optogenetic manipulation of a synaptic pathway connecting auditory and vocal motor circuits to implant song memories sufficient to guide song learning into young zebra finches (see the Perspective by Clayton). Activation of this circuit overrode learning from live tutors. These experiments define circuits essential for social learning of songs from tutors and show that such memories can be localized.

Science, this issue p. 83; see also p. 33


Animals learn many complex behaviors by emulating the behavior of more experienced individuals. This essential, yet still poorly understood, form of learning relies on the ability to encode lasting memories of observed behaviors. We identified a vocal-motor pathway in the zebra finch where memories that guide learning of song-element durations can be implanted. Activation of synapses in this pathway seeds memories that guide learning of song-element duration and can override learning from social interactions with other individuals. Genetic lesions of this circuit after memory formation, however, do not disrupt subsequent song imitation, which suggests that these memories are stored at downstream synapses. Thus, activity at these sensorimotor synapses can bypass learning from auditory and social experience and embed memories that guide learning of song timing.

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