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Sarah W. Bottjer


Neurobiology, Biological Sciences
College of Letters Arts & Sciences

Sarah W. Bottjer

Research Topics

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

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.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.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

Procedural skill learning involves goal-oriented evaluation of behavioral outcomes, which gradually shapes neural circuits to select appropriate actions. That is, acquisition of motor skills depends on neural circuits that compare feedback of self-generated movements to a desired goal and reinforce correct movements that match that goal.

Neural circuits that traverse the cortex and basal ganglia mediate diverse types of procedural learning. How they accomplish this feat is not well understood. A significant gap in our understanding of the learning process centers on how circuits compare self-generated movements with behavioral goals and evaluate the outcome.

Vocal learning in songbirds provides a powerful model for studying the control of experience-dependent skill learning by cortico-basal ganglia circuits. Songbirds, like humans, learn the sounds used for vocal communication during a sensitive period of development. Successful learning requires comparing feedback of babbling sounds to a neural memory of vocal sounds learned from social tutors such as parents. We measure the activity and morphology of neurons as juvenile birds produce their own immature vocalizations. In this way we can investigate neural mechanisms underlying the evaluation of self-generated behavior against a memory of sounds learned from a tutor (the goal) in order to guide gradual acquisition of mature stereotyped behavior.

Disorders of the basal ganglia contribute to multiple diseases, including stuttering, Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction, Parkinson's disease, and Huntington's disease. Understanding the normal function of these circuits is a necessary prerequisite to understanding these disease states.

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



  • 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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  • Achiro J.M., and Bottjer S.W. (2017)  Neural activity in cortico-basal ganglia circuits of juvenile songbirds encodes performance during goal-directed learning.  eLife, 2017;6:e26973 doi: 10.7554/eLife.26973. PubMed
  • Paterson A.K., and Bottjer S.W. (2017) Cortical inter-hemispheric circuits for multimodal vocal learning in songbirds.  Journal of Comparative Neurology  525: 3312-3340. PubMed
  • Miller-Sims, V.C., and Bottjer, S.W.  (2014)  Development of neural responsivity to vocal sounds in higher-level auditory cortex of songbirds.  Journal of Neurophysiology  112: 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
  • Miller-Sims, V.C., and Bottjer, S.W. (2012)  Auditory experience refines cortico-basal ganglia inputs to motor cortex via re-mapping of single axons during vocal learning.  Journal of Neurophysiology 107: 1142-1156. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW and Altenau B (2009) Parallel pathways for vocal learning in basal ganglia of songbirds.  Nature Neuroscience, 13: 153-155. 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.  Journal of Neurophysiology  103: 1833-1842. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW (2005)  Silent synapses in a thalamo-cortical circuit necessary for song learning in zebra finches.  Journal of Neurophysiology  94(6):3698-707. PubMed
  • Bottjer SW (2004)  Developmental regulation of basal ganglia circuitry during the sensitive period for vocal learning in songbirds.  Annals N Y Academy Sciences  1016: 395-415 PubMed
  • Iyengar, S., and Bottjer, S.W. (2002)  The role of auditory experience in the formation of neural circuits underlying vocal learning in zebra finches.  Journal of Neuroscience  22: 946-958. PubMed