Sarah W. Bottjer


Neurobiology, Psychology
Dornsife College of Letters Arts & Sciences

Sarah W. Bottjer

Research Topics

  • Learning & Memory
  • Systems Neuroscience
  • Cortex-Basal Ganglia

Research Images

This is a raw trace of spontaneous spiking showing a high firing rate in a pallidal neuron in the basal ganglia of a juvenile zebra finch.These neurons show the morphology of the pallidal neurons whose firing rate is shown in the first image; they form part of the basal ganglia circuit that serves a role in skill learning during 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 self-generated behavior and desired goal output.  See next image.This highly simplified schematic shows that LMAN consists of two subregions, core and shell, that give rise to parallel pathways through the basal ganglia and thalamus, back to LMAN.  These parallel recurrent loops are highly similar to analogous circuits in mammals that encode sensorimotor (core) and associative-limbic (shell) aspects of skill learning.  In addition, the shell pathway makes a projection to midbrain dopaminergic neurons (VTA) that may provide a source of reinforcement when self-generated behavior matches the goal behavior that the bird is learning to emulate.  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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  • Yuan, R.C., and Bottjer S.W. (2019) Differential developmental changes in cortical representations of auditory-vocal stimuli in songbirds.  Journal of Neurophysiology 121(2):530-548. doi: 10.1152/jn.00714.2018. PubMed Link
  • Achiro J.M., Shen, J.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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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, 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 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 (2005)  Silent synapses in a thalamo-cortical circuit necessary for song learning in zebra finches.  Journal of Neurophysiology  94(6):3698-707. 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