David Vicario, Chair
Title: Professor I, Chair and Graduate Director
Area: Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience
Rockefeller University: Ph.D., 1981
Hampshire College: B.A., 1975
I am interested in the neural basis of behavior: how experience is represented in the brain in a way that results in adaptive behavioral patterns. Specifically, my focus is on sensory-motor integration during vocal learning in songbirds. Songbirds provide an accessible model system for studying the neural mechanisms of a form of behavioral plasticity that has many parallels to human speech acquisition. The power of spoken language in communication is one of the defining adaptations of the human species, and it depends on the rapid production and perception of speech signals. Songbirds are the most easily studied of the few kinds of animals that shape their vocalizations to match the sounds that they hear, as human infants do. Young songbirds learn their vocalizations by imitating conspecifics and then use these sounds to communicate in reproductive and territorial contexts. Developmental song learning comprises both auditory learning, in which a tutor's song is memorized, and sensory-motor learning, in which the young bird shapes his vocal output to match the remembered model. Our detailed knowledge of the anatomy of the vocal control pathways in the songbird brain (which develop postnatally during the learning period) makes it possible to move easily between quantitative descriptions of this naturally-learned behavior and its brain mechanisms.
My research uses behavioral, physiological, and anatomical techniques to study three important aspects of the vocal communication system in developing and adult songbirds: 1) auditory discrimination and auditory memories for species-typical vocal sounds; 2) initiation and patterning of learned vocalizations in vocal production areas; and 3) feedback processes that enable relevant auditory information to modify vocal output during vocal learning. The goal is to identify the principles of neural function that enable the bird to form units of production and perception and assemble them into the complex sequences that underlie vocal communication.