Stony Brook Mind/Brain Lecture Series


15th Annual Lecture


Guest Lecturer:

Allison Doupe, MD, PhD

Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco


What Songbirds Can Teach us About Learning and the Brain



Monday, April 11, 2011
4:30 PM
Staller Center for the Arts, Main Stage
Stony Brook University (Main Campus)
Stony Brook, NY

Directions to Stony Brook University: (for the closest public parking, use the Administration Parking Garage)


A free presentation, intended for a general audience.


View the video replay on YouTube:


Preview video:


Lecture Overview:

Baby songbirds learn to sing the same way human infants learn to speak—by listening to and mimicking their parents. Join us as Dr. Allison J. Doupe shows how the specialized brain circuits (basal ganglia circuits) of songbirds, like the Zebra Finch, are providing insight into human motor learning and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and addiction.


The Neural Basis of Vocal Learning in Songbirds

At present Dr. Doupe's lab is focused on a particular song circuit, the anterior forebrain pathway (AFP). Numerous behavioral studies have suggested that this specialized basal ganglia circuit plays an essential role in song learning. Using a variety of physiological, behavioral, anatomical, and theoretical techniques, her lab is studying how the different features of song are represented in this network, how the animal's auditory experience and vocal learning shape its neuronal properties, and what the crucial function of this pathway might be.


Since the bird normally hears its own song only during singing, the lab has begun recording from this pathway in awake, behaving birds. This has demonstrated that AFP neurons are also highly active when the bird sings, and carry signals related to the motor act of singing as well as auditory responses. Behavioral experiments, using lesions of this pathway, suggest that these neurons may be required any time the bird changes its song, even in adulthood, and may encode an error signal when auditory feedback does not match the intended vocal output. Moreover, the activity of these neurons is dramatically affected by different social settings (singing alone vs. singing to a companion), raising the possibility that this circuit may also be involved in social modulation of singing and song learning.




Allison Doupe, MD, PhD

Dr. Doupe is Professor of Psychiatry and Physiology and the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Dr. Doupe received a BSc from McGill University in 1975 and simultaneously received a MD and PhD from Harvard University in 1984. She has been a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry and Physiology at UCSF since 1993. Dr. Doupe's laboratory is interested in how the nervous system mediates behavior, especially complex behaviors that must be learned. Birdsong provides a useful model system for the study of these issues. Song is an intricate motor act that is learned in distinct phases during a bird's life, and depends on the animal's auditory experience. There are critical periods for song learning, just as there are for human language learning.


Dr. Doupe is the recipient of a Klingenstein Fellowship, a McKnight Investigator Award, a Searle Scholarship, an EJLB Scholar Award, and a Merck Fellowship. She is a diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and serves on the editorial board of several leading journals, including the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Neurobiology.


Additional Resources:


Press release (March 22, 2011): What Songbirds Can Teach Us About Learning and the Brain - Topic of 15th Annual Swartz Foundation Mind/Brain Lecture


Allison Doupe - Neuroscience Graduate Program at UCSF

Research Description: The Neural Basis of Vocal Learning in Songbirds


Allison J. Doupe, MD, PhD - Department of Psychiatry, UCSF

Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, is a researcher of basic science research in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF.


Allison Doupe – LinkedIn


Searle Scholars Program: Allison J. Doupe (1993)


The cognitive neurosciences - Google Books Result


Gordon Research Conferences - 1999 Program


Forbes Lecture, Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole: Lessons from Songbirds about Basal Ganglia Circuits, Social Context, and Plasticity




Publications on PubMed


Tweeting teenage songbirds reveal impact of social cues on learning


Social performance reveals unexpected vocal competency in young songbirds


A bird brain's view of auditory processing and perception


Developmentally Restricted Synaptic Plasticity in a Songbird Nucleus Required for Song Learning


Birdsong and Human Speech: Common Themes and Mechanisms


Two-dimensional encoding and adaptation in the songbird auditory forebrain


Birdbrains could teach basal ganglia research a new song


Cellular, circuit, and synaptic mechanisms in song learning


Spike timing and the coding of naturalistic sounds in a central auditory area of songbirds


Environmental influences in the development of neural crest derivatives: glucocorticoids, growth factors, and chromaffin cell plasticity


Song-selective auditory circuits in the vocal control system of the zebra finch


Spectral-temporal receptive fields of nonlinear auditory neurons obtained using natural sounds


Interruption of a basal ganglia–forebrain circuit prevents plasticity of learned vocalizations


Song-and order-selective neurons in the songbird anterior forebrain and their emergence during vocal development


What songbirds teach us about learning


Contributions of an avian basal ganglia–forebrain circuit to real-time modulation of song


Social context modulates singing-related neural activity in the songbird forebrain


Auditory feedback in learning and maintenance of vocal behaviour


Temporal and spectral sensitivity of complex auditory neurons in the nucleus HVc of male zebra finches


Singing-related neural activity in a dorsal forebrain-basal ganglia circuit of adult zebra finches


Anterior forebrain neurons develop selectivity by an intermediate stage of birdsong learning


FOS is induced by singing in distinct neuronal populations in a motor network


Development of the catecholaminergic innervation of the song system of the male zebra finch


Contributions of tutor and bird's own song experience to neural selectivity in the songbird anterior forebrain


Postlearning consolidation of birdsong: stabilizing effects of age and anterior forebrain lesions



Publications on Google Scholar:


Event home pages:

The Swartz Foundation – Mind/Brain Lecture Series Home Page


Stony Brook University Mind/Brain Lecture Series Home Page




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