Evolution and neural mechanisms of vocal learning

Feb 15, 2022 | 16:00 CET | ZOOM ID: 7754910236

Vocal learning is one of the most critical components of spoken language. It has evolved several independent times among mammals and birds. Although all vocal learning species are distantly related and have closer relatives that are non-vocal learners, humans and the vocal learning birds have evolved convergent forebrain pathways that control song and speech imitation and production. Here I present an overview of the various biological hypothesis of what makes vocal learning and spoken language special, how it evolved, and what differs compared to other behavioral traits. We used comparative genomics and transcriptomics to discover convergent changes in genes in song learning pathways in birds and speech pathways in humans that control brain connectivity, neural activity, and synaptic plasticity. The specialized regulation is associated with convergent accelerated regions in these gene’s regulatory regions, that have binding sites for a set of transcriptive factors with differential regulation specific to vocal learning circuits. To explain these findings, I propose a motor theory of vocal learning origin, in which brain pathways for vocal learning evolved by brain pathway duplication of an ancestral motor learning pathway, using mostly the same genes, but with some divergences in gene regulation via sequence and epigenetic changes. These changes control divergent connectivity and other specialized functions to rapidly integrate auditory input with vocal motor output.

A06 Postdoc Fabian Heim will introduce the talk. A04, and Z project leader and SFB1315 Speaker Matthew Larkum, will moderate the talk.

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