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Keywords:

  • songbirds;
  • learning;
  • corpus striatum;
  • animal vocalization

Abstract

Song learning in oscine birds relies on a circuit known as the “anterior forebrain pathway,” which includes a specialized region of the avian basal ganglia. This region, area X, is embedded within a telencephalic structure considered homologous to the striatum, the input structure of the mammalian basal ganglia. Area X has many features in common with the mammalian striatum, yet has distinctive traits, including largely aspiny projection neurons that directly innervate the thalamus and a cell type that physiologically resembles neurons recorded in the mammalian globus pallidus. We have proposed that area X is a mixture of striatum and globus pallidus and has the same functional organization as circuits in the mammalian basal ganglia. Using electrophysiological and anatomical approaches, we found that area X contains a functional analog of the “direct” striatopallidothalamic pathway of mammals: axons of the striatal spiny neurons make close contacts on the somata and dendrites of pallidal cells. A subset of pallidal neurons project directly to the thalamus. Surprisingly, we found evidence that many pallidal cells may not project to the thalamus, but rather participate in a functional analog of the mammalian “indirect” pathway, which may oppose the effects of the direct pathway. Our results deepen our understanding of how information flows through area X and provide more support for the notion that song learning in oscines employs physiological mechanisms similar to basal ganglia-dependent forms of motor learning in mammals. J. Comp. Neurol. 484:93–104, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.