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Keywords:

  • auditory perception;
  • immediate early gene;
  • social environment;
  • zebra finch;
  • ZENK;
  • Zif-268

Abstract

Although it is well known that brain sensory information processing is a highly modulated phenomenon, how this brain function is shaped by experience and social context remains a question to explore. In this paper, we present the first attempt to investigate this problem using a songbird acoustic communication paradigm. Social context is well known to influence acoustic communicating behaviours in birds. The present paper investigates whether brain processing of auditory inputs can be modulated by this ‘audience effect’. Given that call-based communication is known to be highly context-dependent, we focused on the response of male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) to female calls. We tested to see if the current social context surrounding the hearing bird can modify a sound-induced immediate early gene (IEG) activation in the specific region of the caudomedial nidopallium (NCM), a songbird brain analogous to the superficial layers of the mammalian primary auditory cortex. Our results show that the expression of the sound-induced immediate early gene ZENK in the NCM is considerably enhanced when the hearing bird is in the presence of conspecifics, compared to when he is alone. This context-dependent increase of a sound-induced immediate early gene expression can be correlated with the differential behavioural response of males to the playback of the same acoustic stimulus as a function of social context.