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Keywords:

  • auditory;
  • zebra finch;
  • canary;
  • immediate-early gene;
  • zenk

Abstract: We review here evidence that a large portion of the caudomedial telencephalon of songbirds, distinct from the song control circuit, is involved in the perceptual processing of birdsong. When songbirds hear song, a number of caudomedial pallial areas are activated, as revealed by expression of the activity-dependent gene zenk. These areas, which include field L subfields L1 and L3, as well as the adjacent caudomedial nidopallium (NCM) and caudomedial mesopallium (CMM), are part of the central auditory pathway and constitute a lobule in the caudomedial aspect of the telencephalon. Several lines of evidence indicate that the neural circuits integrating this lobule are capable of performing the auditory processing of song based on fine acoustic features. Thus, this lobule is well positioned to mediate song perceptual processing and discrimination, which are required for vocal communication and vocal learning. Importantly, the zenk gene encodes a transcription factor linked to synaptic plasticity, and it regulates the expression of target genes associated with specific neuronal cell functions. The induction of zenk likely represents a key regulatory event in a gene cascade triggered by song and leading to neuronal plasticity. Thus, zenk may be linked to molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying experience-dependent modification of song-responsive circuits. In summary, songbirds possess an elaborate system for song perceptual processing and discrimination that potentially also subserves song-induced neuronal plasticity and song memory formation. The continued use of a multidisciplinary approach that integrates molecular, anatomical, physiological and behavioral methodologies has the potential to provide further significant insights into the underlying neurobiology of the perceptual aspects of vocal communication and learning.