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Beyond Critical Period Learning: Striatal FoxP2 Affects the Active Maintenance of Learned Vocalizations in Adulthood.


In humans, mutations in the transcription factor forkhead box P2 (FOXP2) result in language disorders associated with altered striatal structure. Like speech, birdsong is learned through social interactions during maturational critical periods, and it relies on auditory feedback during initial learning and on-going maintenance. Hearing loss causes learned vocalizations to deteriorate in adult humans and songbirds. In the adult songbird brain, most FoxP2-enriched regions (e.g., cortex, thalamus) show a static expression level, but in the striatal song control nucleus, area X, FoxP2 is regulated by singing and social context: when juveniles and adults sing alone, its levels drop, and songs are more variable. When males sing to females, FoxP2 levels remain high, and songs are relatively stable: this "on-line" regulation implicates FoxP2 in ongoing vocal processes, but its role in the auditory-based maintenance of learned vocalization has not been examined. To test this, we overexpressed FoxP2 in both hearing and deafened adult zebra finches and assessed effects on song sung alone versus songs directed to females. In intact birds singing alone, no changes were detected between songs of males expressing FoxP2 or a GFP construct in area X, consistent with the marked stability of mature song in this species. In contrast, songs of males overexpressing FoxP2 became more variable and were less preferable to females, unlike responses to songs of GFP-expressing control males. In deafened birds, song deteriorated more rapidly following FoxP2 overexpression relative to GFP controls. Together, these experiments suggest that behavior-driven FoxP2 expression and auditory feedback interact to precisely maintain learned vocalizations.

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