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Keywords:

  • NMDA receptor;
  • development;
  • sensitive period;
  • learning;
  • birdsong

Abstract: Many behaviors are learned most easily during a discrete developmental period, and it is generally agreed that these “sensitive periods” for learning reflect the developmental regulation of molecular or synaptic properties that underlie experience-dependent changes in neural organization and function. Avian song learning provides one example of such temporally restricted learning, and several features of this behavior and its underlying neural circuitry make it a powerful model for studying how early experience sculpts neural and behavioral organization. Here we describe evidence that within the basal ganglia-thalamocortical loop implicated in vocal learning, song acquisition engages N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors (NMDARs), as well as signal transduction cascades strongly implicated in other instances of learning. Furthermore, NMDAR phenotype changes in parallel with developmental and seasonal periods for vocal plasticity. We also review recent studies in the avian song system that challenge the popular notion that sensitive periods for learning reflect developmental changes in the NMDAR that alter thresholds for synaptic plasticity.