Neural underpinnings of auditory observational learning in Zebra Finches

Demonstrators learn by trial-and-error (reinforcement learning), whereas observers’ learning mechanisms are less well understood. We are now interested in examining how different songbird brain nuclei (such as the HVC, CMM, NCL - higher order auditory/decision making areas) might be involved in observational learning of an auditory discrimination task. We will perform brain lesions and reversible brain manipulations (e.g. optogenetics) to disrupt normal brain function related to this task. The student will learn about songbird brain anatomy and physiology, learn to train birds in a behavioral task and perform simple analyses of behavioral data, learn to perform surgical procedures such as injecting viruses and ibutenic acid, and learn to perform histological examinations of the brain. The goal is to isolate a minimal set of brain nuclei that are responsible for one/more components of the observational learning effect. For example, it may be that one critical area learns a task-relevant sensory representation of the stimuli, while another reacts to the actions of the demonstrator (a la Mirror neurons). We would use this information in the future to plan chronic electrophysiology (neural recordings in awake, behaving animals) experiments in order to reveal the necessary computation performed by those areas.

Contact

Gagan Narula, gnarula (at) ini.uzh.ch

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