Sarah Woolley, Ph.D.
Dr. Woolley is on faculty in the McGill University Department of Biology. She is interested in the neural mechanisms underlying the production and perception of social communication behaviors. She studies these in songbird populations using a combination of electrophysiology, behavioral analysis, molecular biology and computational methods.
Many communicative behaviors, including human speech, are affected by social cues. In songbirds, males use song to attract females, and song performance can differ depending on the audience to which a male sings. For example, the songs of male zebra finches are more variable when males sing non-courtship song in isolation than when they perform courtship song to a female. We are interested in how this social modulation of song variability is generated as well as whether such changes in vocal variability are perceptible to other birds.
In this talk, I will discuss neurophysiological data indicating how neural variability important for the social modulation of vocal variability actively emerges and acquires context-sensitivity over the course of a circuit. These data point to the basal ganglia as a key locus in the generation of behavioral variability and its sensitivity to social cues. In addition, I will discuss how socially modulated changes in song are perceived by female birds, the intended audience for such signals. Based on studies using behavioral preference assays and immediate early gene expression it appears that female songbirds are highly sensitive to social modulation of vocal stereotypy. Moreover, they appear to be sensitive to precisely the features of song whose social modulation is actively controlled by a cortical-basal ganglia circuit. Ultimately, by integrating analyses of both the production and perception of song, these data lend insight into the mechanisms and evolutionary importance of motor variability and plasticity.