Neuron loss and addition in developing zebra finch song nuclei are independent of auditory experience during song learning



In zebra finches early auditory experience is critical for normal song development. Young males first listen to and memorize a suitable song model and then use auditory feedback from their own vocalizations to mimic that model. During these two phases of vocal learning, songrelated brain regions exhibit large, hormone-induced changes in volume and neuron number. Overlap between these neural changes and auditory-based vocal learning suggests that processing and acquiring auditory input may influence cellular processes that determine neuron number in the song system. We addressed this hypothesis by measuring neuron density, nuclear volume, and neuron number within the song system of normal male zebra finches and males deafened prior to song learning (10 days of age). Measures were obtained at 25, 50, 65, and 120 days of age, and included four song nuclei: the hyperstriatum ventralis pars caudalis or higher vocal center (HVc), Area X, the robust nucleus of the archistriatum (RA), and the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior neostriatum (lMAN). In both HVc and Area X, nuclear volume and neuron number increased markedly with age in both normal and deafened birds. The volume of RA also increased with age and was not affected by early deafening. In lMAN, deafening also did not affect the overall age-related loss of neurons, although at 25 days neuron number was slightly less in deafened than in normal birds. We conclude that while the addition and loss of neurons in the developing song system may provide plasticity essential for song learning, these changes do not reflect learning. Thus, in the zebra finch song system neither the growth of song nuclei nor the developmental regulation of neuron number depend on auditory learning during song development.