Increased Fos expression among midbrain dopaminergic cell groups during birdsong tutoring


Dr E. J. Nordeen, as above.


During avian vocal learning, birds memorize conspecific song patterns and then use auditory feedback to match their vocal output to this acquired template. Some models of song learning posit that during tutoring, conspecific visual, social and/or auditory cues activate neuromodulatory systems that encourage acquisition of the tutor’s song and attach incentive value to that specific acoustic pattern. This hypothesis predicts that stimuli experienced during social tutoring activate cell populations capable of signaling reward. Using immunocytochemistry for the protein product of the immediate early gene c-Fos, we found that brief exposure of juvenile male zebra finches to a live familiar male tutor increased the density of Fos+ cells within two brain regions implicated in reward processing: the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). This activation of Fos appears to involve both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic VTA/SNc neurons. Intriguingly, a familiar tutor was more effective than a novel tutor in stimulating Fos expression within these regions. In the periaqueductal gray, a dopamine-enriched cell population that has been implicated in emotional processing, Fos labeling also was increased after tutoring, with a familiar tutor again being more effective than a novel conspecific. As several neural regions implicated in song acquisition receive strong dopaminergic projections from these midbrain nuclei, their activation in conjunction with hearing the tutor’s song could help to establish sensory representations that later guide motor sequence learning.