Song controlling brain cells

Department of Behavioural Neurobiology

The research of the department of Behavioural Neurobiology focuses on the sexual differentiation of the brain, seeking to understand the mechanisms responsible for the development of sex-specific behaviours and sensory processing. In this context, we study the endocrine, molecular, and neurobiological mechanisms of innate and learned vocalizations for various bird species in a natural setting. Songbirds display a large variety of gender-specific singing behaviour, making them ideal models for studies investigating sex differences in behaviour.

In most bird species, male singing behaviour plays a role in direct or indirect competition for females, and female mate choice involves vocal performances of the males. In songbirds, songs consist of genetically determined and learned components. Further, learning changes female preferences for male songs. Thus, learning is crucial for both the production of sexual signals and the response to sexual signals, i.e. learning is central for vocalization-based sexual selection in songbirds. The acquisition of auditory memories, the transformation of auditory memories into motor memories, and the subsequent use of motor memories is influenced by the physiological conditions and/or the socio-sexual experience of an individual. This suggests that vocalization-based sexual selection in songbirds is anchored in the life-history of males and females.

In order to produce learned sounds, birds need a songbird genetic background and sex steroids (androgens and estrogens) to develop the neural vocal control system into a male or female configuration, which differs between species. Song production in adulthood is sensitive to sex steroid hormones (androgens and estrogens) and other endocrine systems (e.g. melatonin) that signal environmental changes (ecological and socio-sexual) to vocal control.

The anatomical and functional distinctness of the vocal system of songbirds as well as the large data base on natural behaviour of songbirds makes the vocal system suitable for investigating the genetic and environmental causes of neural sex differences and their consequences for sexual behaviour (sex specific functions). The projects are multidisciplinary and integrate works on the level of behaviour, endocrinology, neuroanatomical, gene-expression and electrophysiology in constrained, semi-natural, and natural conditions.

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