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Modelling the developmental neuromechanics of vocal learning

Carlsbergfondets postdoc-stipendier i Danmark

What

All animal behaviors result from complex system-wide interactions between the nervous system, body, and the surrounding environment. Often only the brain is considered when investigating (the developmental trajectory of) a behavior. While the brain is an important component of acquiring a new behavior, it is not the only one. When learning novel behaviors all system components (brain, body, environment) interact and also affect each other’s developmental trajectories. The aim of the project is to use the theoretical framework of dynamic systems to understand the development of a complex learned behavior – vocal learning -, as found in speech and song learning in humans and birds, respectively.

Why

Being able to learn novel behaviors, especially the ones used to communicate with conspecifics, is immensely important to us humans as well as all other animals. Thus, it is of great interest to understand how behaviors emerge from the interplay of brain, body and environment. Taking a systems-view on how vocal behavior develops and how perturbations in one component affect the resulting behavior as well as the remaining components of the system will eventually help to identify deficits early and guide interventions in a personalized and more successful way than currently possible.

How

I will adapt a novel systems-view theoretical framework to the development of vocal learning in songbirds. To this end I will incorporate data on song development, morphology of the vocal organ, social interactions, muscle physiology and brain development into the model. Subsequently, unique experimental paradigms available only in the songbird system will allow me to selectively perturb the dynamics of the vocal learning process and thereby test the model’s predictions for the first time.

SSR

Speech and language are integral to human society. Disorders touching these skills pose a burden to integrate into society. Modelling the development of vocal learning may aid to identify problems early in development and guide interventions.