Developmental plasticity in neural circuits controlling birdsong: Sexual differentiation and the neural basis of learning


  • Arthur P. Arnold

    1. Department of Psychology and Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology of the Brain Research Institute, University of California, Los Angles, CA 90024-1563
    Search for more papers by this author


In many species of passerine songbirds, males learn their song during defined periods of life. Female song in often reduced or absent, as are the brain regions controlling song. Sexual differences in the brain arise because of the action of sex steroids, which trigger the formation of some neural pathways (especially the pathway from the higher vocal center to the robust nucleus) and prevent the atrophy of others in males. These neural changes occur during periods of developmental song learning and can recur during periods of learning in adult birds. The process of learning is correlated with major increases or decreases in the number of neurons in specific neuronal populations, suggesting that the formation or loss of specific neural pathways regulates the ability to learn. Species differences in sexual differentiation and learning allow informative cross-species comparisons of neural structure and behavior. © 1992 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.