UTSA COS Summer Research Experience for 2013
Behavioral Analysis and Computational Modeling of Vocal Development in Songbirds
Research involves detailed characterization of the process of song learning in birds, and computational modeling to understand how circuits in the brain accomplish this complex task. Birds, along with aquatic mammals and bats, are the only animals known to learn their vocalizations the way that human infants do - by imitating the sounds of an adult animal. Song learning has been shown to have several important similarities with speech development in humans, and also parallels the age-dependence of the effect of deafening. Previous studies have indicated that basal ganglia, a set of brain areas compromised in Parkinson’s disease, play a critical role as birds learn. Recent studies suggest that these brain areas may be important for regulating how the bird explores the production of different sounds during the learning process. Students may contribute to several ongoing areas of research in the lab, including the analysis of several terabytes of song recording from zebra finches as they learn to sing. Also, we have ongoing projects analyzing song from adult Bengalese finches, who have songs with variable sequencing. One direction here is to analyze the inter-relation between sequencing, timing and syllable phonology to make inferences about how these tasks are represented in the brain. We also train birds to change their songs in very specific ways by playing a burst of noise triggered when birds sing songs that match specific conditions.