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Sarah W. Bottjer

Professor

Neurobiology, Biological Sciences
College of Letters Arts & Sciences

Sarah W. Bottjer

Research Topics

  • Learning & Memory
  • Systems Neuroscience
  • Sensitive Periods
  • Electrophysiology & optogenetics

Research Images

This highly schematic diagram shows the major neural circuits controlling vocal learning and behavior in songbirds. The pathway from HVC to RA controls motor production of song and is formed via neurogenesis during the sensitive period for vocal learning. The X-DLM-LMAN-RA pathway a basal ganglia circuit that is necessary for normal vocal development in juvenile birds; it may serve as an 'error detector' circuit to assist in the matching of vocal output to the desired target.
This highly schematic diagram shows the major neural circuits controlling vocal learning and behavior in songbirds. The pathway from HVC to RA controls motor production of song and is formed via neurogenesis during the sensitive period for vocal learning. The X-DLM-LMAN-RA pathway a basal ganglia circuit that is necessary for normal vocal development in juvenile birds; it may serve as an 'error detector' circuit to assist in the matching of vocal output to the desired target.
These neurons in Area X form part of the basal ganglia circuit that serves a role in motor learning during early stages of vocal development.  They are the output neurons of the basal ganglia to the dorsal thalamus (DLM); DLM neurons, in turn relay to LMAN, which is the source of output to the motor cortex (RA) as well as feedback and feedforward circuits for comparison of the match between actual and desired vocal output.
These neurons in Area X form part of the basal ganglia circuit that serves a role in motor learning during early stages of vocal development. They are the output neurons of the basal ganglia to the dorsal thalamus (DLM); DLM neurons, in turn relay to LMAN, which is the source of output to the motor cortex (RA) as well as feedback and feedforward circuits for comparison of the match between actual and desired vocal output.
This montage shows apoptotic neurons in the song-control nucleus RA (in motor cortex). Cell death in RA is caused by de-afferentation: removal of pre-synaptic axons from LMAN at the onset of song learning (but not at later stages) induces apoptosis, which can be prevented by infusing neurotrophins directly into RA.  Thus, neurodegeneration vs. neuron survival acts to sculpt the neural substrate for vocal learning during a sensitive period.
This montage shows apoptotic neurons in the song-control nucleus RA (in motor cortex). Cell death in RA is caused by de-afferentation: removal of pre-synaptic axons from LMAN at the onset of song learning (but not at later stages) induces apoptosis, which can be prevented by infusing neurotrophins directly into RA. Thus, neurodegeneration vs. neuron survival acts to sculpt the neural substrate for vocal learning during a sensitive period.
Thalamic axons projecting to the cortical target region LMAN show pronounced pruning of their arbors during the course of vocal development.  This re-modeling of axonal connectivity is thought to produce refinement in the topographic organization of this pathway.  We have found that such refinement in other song-control pathways is dependent on auditory experience: birds that are prevented from hearing normal zebra finch sounds show no axonal remodeling during this period.
Thalamic axons projecting to the cortical target region LMAN show pronounced pruning of their arbors during the course of vocal development. This re-modeling of axonal connectivity is thought to produce refinement in the topographic organization of this pathway. We have found that such refinement in other song-control pathways is dependent on auditory experience: birds that are prevented from hearing normal zebra finch sounds show no axonal remodeling during this period.

Research Overview

My lab is interested in learning and development. One focus of our research is on the question of why neural and behavioral plasticity are greatly enhanced during restricted periods of development. Another is on skill learning: the types of procedural learning that produce highly habitual behaviors with practice. To address these questions we study cortico-basal ganglia circuits in an animal model, in which it is possible to measure the activity and morphology of single neurons within the context of a functional circuit underlying a specific learned behavior.

Cortico-basal ganglia circuits mediate skill learning that leads to habit formation; speech is a good example of this. Like humans, songbirds memorize vocal sounds based on auditory experience with vocalizations of adult tutors during a sensitive period of development. They then use feedback of self-produced vocalizations to gradually refine their vocal motor output as they achieve an imitation of memorized tutor sounds. Thus, vocal learning in songbirds, like speech acquisition in humans, entails a period of sensorimotor integration during which vocalizations are evaluated via auditory feedback and progressively refined to achieve an imitation of memorized vocal sounds. This process requires the brain to compare feedback of current vocal behavior to a memory of target vocal sounds. Cortico-basal ganglia circuits mediate this type of goal-directed learning in both songbirds and humans.

Understanding basic mechanisms of hearing, vocal communication, and social interactions is essential for understanding a variety of developmental disorders including autism, Tourette syndrome, central auditory processing disorder, and other syndromes such as Parkinson's disease, addiction, and stuttering.

Contact Information

Mailing Address 2520 UPC
Office Location HNB 218
Office Phone (213) 740-9183
Lab Location
Lab Phone
Fax (213) 740-5687
Office Location HNB 218

Websites

Education

  • BA 1975 Psychology - State University of New York, Binghamton, NY
  • PhD 1979 Psychology - Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
  • Postdoctoral Research Fellowship - 1980-1986 University of California, Los Angeles

Selected Publications

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  • Miller-Sims, V.C., and Bottjer, S.W.  (2014)  Development of neural responsivity to vocal sounds in higher-level auditory cortex of songbirds.  J Neurophysiol112:81-94. PubMed
  • Achiro JM, and Bottjer, SW  (2013)  Neural representation of a target auditory memory in a cortico-basal ganglia pathway.  Journal of Neuroscience 33:14475-14488. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW and Altenau B (2009) Parallel pathways for vocal learning in basal ganglia of songbirds.  Nature Neuroscience, doi:10.1038/nn.2472. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW, Alderete T and Chang D (2010) Conjunction of vocal production and perception regulates expression of the immediate early gene ZENK in a novel cortical region of songbirds.  J Neurophysiol.  103: 1833-1842. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW. (2005) Timing and prediction: the code from basal ganglia to thalamus. Neuron 46(1):4-7. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW (2005)  Silent synapses in a thalamo-cortical circuit necessary for song learning in zebra finches. J Neurophysiol  94(6):3698-707. PubMed
  • Zevin JD,Seidenberg MS,Bottjer SW (2004)  Limits on reacquisition of song in adult zebra finches exposed to white noise.  J Neurosci  24(26):5849-62. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW (2004)  Developmental regulation of basal ganglia circuitry during the sensitive period for vocal learning in songbirds.  Ann N Y Acad Sci  1016():395-415 PubMed
  • Reiner A,Laverghetta AV,Meade CA,Cuthbertson SL,Bottjer SW (2004) - An immunohistochemical and pathway tracing study of the striatopallidal organization of area X in the male zebra finch.  J Comp Neurol 469(2):239-261. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW (2002)  Neural strategies for learning during sensitive periods of development.  J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol  188(11-12):917-28 PubMed