The Basal Ganglia Is Necessary for Learning Spectral, but Not Temporal, Features of Birdsong

Farhan Ali, Timothy M. Otchy, Cengiz Pehlevan, Antoniu L. Fantana, Yoram Burak, Bence P. Ölveczky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Executing a motor skill requires the brain to control which muscles to activate at what times. How these aspects of control-motor implementation and timing-are acquired, and whether the learning processes underlying them differ, is not well understood. To address this, we used a reinforcement learning paradigm to independently manipulate both spectral and temporal features of birdsong, a complex learned motor sequence, while recording and perturbing activity in underlying circuits. Our results uncovered a striking dissociation in how neural circuits underlie learning in the two domains. The basal ganglia was required for modifying spectral, but not temporal, structure. This functional dissociation extended to the descending motor pathway, where recordings from a premotor cortex analog nucleus reflected changes to temporal, but not spectral, structure. Our results reveal a strategy in which the nervous system employs different and largely independent circuits to learn distinct aspects of a motor skill

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)494-506
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - 16 Oct 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Ed Soucy for assistance with the CAF software and Stephen Turney and the Harvard University Neurobiology Department and the Neurobiology Imaging Facility for imaging consultation and equipment use. We acknowledge Jesse Goldberg, Aaron Andalman, Rajesh Poddar, Naoshige Uchida, Markus Meister, Evan Feinberg, Maurice Smith, and Kenneth Blum for helpful discussions and feedback on the manuscript. This work was supported by a grant from NINDS (R01 NS066408), a McKnight Scholar Award and Klingenstein Fellowship to B.P.Ö., and a Swartz Foundation postdoctoral fellowship to C.P.


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