A Basal Ganglia Circuit Sufficient To Guide Birdsong Learning

Lei Xiao, Gaurav Chattree, Francisco Garcia Oscos, Mou Cao, Matthew J. Wanat, Todd F. Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Learning complex vocal behaviors, like speech and birdsong, is thought to rely on continued performance evaluation. Whether candidate performance evaluation circuits in the brain are sufficient to guide vocal learning is not known. Here, we test the sufficiency of VTA projections to the vocal basal ganglia (Area X) in singing zebra finches, a songbird species that learns to produce a complex and stereotyped multi-syllabic courtship song during development. We optogenetically manipulate VTA axon terminals in singing birds contingent on how the pitch of individual song syllables are naturally performed. We find that optical excitation and inhibition of VTA terminals have opponent effects on future performances of targeted song syllables and are each sufficient to reliably guide learned changes in song, consistent with positive and negative reinforcement of performance outcomes. These findings define a central role for reinforcement mechanisms in learning vocalizations and provide the first demonstration of minimal circuit elements for learning vocal behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Nov 21 2017


  • basal ganglia
  • communication
  • dopamine
  • optogenetics
  • reinforcement learning
  • skill learning
  • songbird
  • ventral tegmental area
  • vocal learning
  • zebra finch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)

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