1. Research

My lab uses neurophysiological, immunocytochemical, and neurochemical tools to reveal mechanisms underlying vocal learning, motor control, and social behavior.

SOCIAL MODULATION OF VOCAL LEARNING

Social interactions promote and guide vocal learning in songbirds as well as humans. For example, social interactions with a live tutor can facilitate and guide the trajectory of song development. I am interested in understanding the neural circuits that mediate such social influences on vocal learning.

SOCIAL MODULATION OF VOCAL PERFORMANCE

The structure and organization of vocal signals varies across social contexts in songbirds, humans, and a number of other species. For example, Bengalese finches produce faster songs with more stereotyped syllables arranged in more stereotyped sequences when singing to a female than when singing in isolation (Sakata, Hampton, and Brainard, 2008; Sakata and Brainard, 2009). The circuits that modulate the distinct forms of vocal motor change remain largely unknown, though some of our previous studies indicate that distinct circuits control spectral and temporal features of song (Hampton, Sakata, and Brainard, 2009). Using immediate early gene immunohistochemistry, neurophysiological recordings, and manipulations of neural activity and neurochemistry, I am mapping the neural circuits that contribute to the social modulation of song. Of particular interest is the contribution of dopamine and norepinephrine to the social modulation of syllable structure, sequencing, and timing.

MECHANISMS UNDERLYING THE LEARNING, CONTROL AND PLASTICITY OF SYLLABLE SEQUENCING AND TIMING 

Complex behaviors like birdsong consist of individual motor acts sequenced and timed in particular ways.  My lab is interested in revealing how brain activity in focal circuits regulates the learning and control of syllable sequencing and timing. We are characterizing and modelling the plasticity of syllable sequencing in juvenile and adult songbirds to gain insight into neurobiological mechanisms of sequence generation.

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