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Discrete Circuits Support Generalized versus Context-Specific Vocal Learning in the Songbird


Motor skills depend on the reuse of individual gestures in multiple sequential contexts (e.g., a single phoneme in different words). Yet optimal performance requires that a given gesture be modified appropriately depending on the sequence in which it occurs. To investigate the neural architecture underlying such context-dependent modifications, we studied Bengalese finch song, which, like speech, consists of variable sequences of "syllables." We found that when birds are instructed to modify a syllable in one sequential context, learning generalizes across contexts; however, if unique instruction is provided in different contexts, learning is specific for each context. Using localized inactivation of a cortical-basal ganglia circuit specialized for song, we show that this balance between generalization and specificity reflects a hierarchical organization of neural substrates. Primary motor circuitry encodes a core syllable representation that contributes to generalization, while top-down input from cortical-basal ganglia circuitry biases this representation to enable context-specific learning.

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