Birds as a model to study adult neurogenesis: bridging evolutionary, comparative and neuroethological approaches


Anat Barnea, as above.


During the last few decades, evidence has demonstrated that adult neurogenesis is a well-preserved feature throughout the animal kingdom. In birds, ongoing neuronal addition occurs rather broadly, to a number of brain regions. This review describes adult avian neurogenesis and neuronal recruitment, discusses factors that regulate these processes, and touches upon the question of their genetic control. Several attributes make birds an extremely advantageous model to study neurogenesis. First, song learning exhibits seasonal variation that is associated with seasonal variation in neuronal turnover in some song control brain nuclei, which seems to be regulated via adult neurogenesis. Second, food-caching birds naturally use memory-dependent behavior in learning the locations of thousands of food caches scattered over their home ranges. In comparison with other birds, food-caching species have relatively enlarged hippocampi with more neurons and intense neurogenesis, which appears to be related to spatial learning. Finally, migratory behavior and naturally occurring social systems in birds also provide opportunities to investigate neurogenesis. This diversity of naturally occurring memory-based behaviors, combined with the fact that birds can be studied both in the wild and in the laboratory, make them ideal for investigation of neural processes underlying learning. This can be done by using various approaches, from evolutionary and comparative to neuroethological and molecular. Finally, we connect the avian arena to a broader view by providing a brief comparative and evolutionary overview of adult neurogenesis and by discussing the possible functional role of the new neurons. We conclude by indicating future directions and possible medical applications.