IPN PI Profile: Dr. Jon Sakata

Broadly speaking, the Sakata lab investigates the mechanisms underlying the learning, plasticity, and control of communicative behaviors.  We study songbirds, in particular zebra finches and Bengalese finches, to reveal the neural circuits underlying vocal learning and control.  Songbirds are one of the few vertebrate species that, like humans, learn their vocal communication signals during development.  Furthermore, the neural circuitry regulating vocal communication in songbirds is highly similar to the circuitry underlying speech and language; therefore, songbirds provide a powerful system to reveal general mechanisms of vocal learning and control and to test mechanistic models of speech acquisition and control.  

My lab is particularly interested in how brain circuits transduce social information to modulate the learning and control of birdsong.  Social interactions dramatically influence vocal learning in songbirds as well as in humans.  For example, social interactions with a live tutor can promote vocal learning and guide the trajectory of vocal development.  We study how social interactions and social information about song performance influence the activity of sensory neurons as well as dopaminergic, noradrenergic, and cholinergic neurons.  We also assess neuromodulatory influences on vocal learning by evaluating learning outcomes following local manipulations of neurochemistry. 

In addition to shaping vocal learning, social interactions acutely affect the structure and organization of vocal communication signals.  For example, Bengalese finches produce faster songs with more stereotyped syllables arranged in more stereotyped sequences when singing to a female than when singing in isolation (e.g., Sakata, Hampton, and Brainard, 2008; Sakata and Brainard, 2009; James and Sakata, 2015).  The circuits that modulate the distinct forms of vocal motor change remain largely unknown, though some of our previous studies indicate that distinct circuits control spectral and temporal features of song (Hampton, Sakata, and Brainard, 2009; Matheson, Sun, and Sakata, 2016).  Using immediate early gene immunohistochemistry, neurophysiological recordings, and manipulations of neural activity and neurochemistry, my lab is mapping the neural circuits that contribute to the social modulation of birdsong.  Of particular interest is the contribution of dopamine and norepinephrine to the social modulation of syllable structure, sequencing, and timing.

I began my formal neuroscience training in graduate school, after receiving a BA in Economics.  I received my PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Texas at Austin with Drs. David Crews and Francisco Gonzalez-Lima.  After a brief post-doc with Dr. Theresa Jones, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Michael Brainard at the University of California, San Francisco where I first started working with songbirds.  My primary affiliation now is with the Department of Biology at McGill University.  In addition to being an active member of the IPN, I also participate in the Centre for Research in Brain, Language, and Music (CRBLM) and in the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology (CSBN).  I am fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate and interact with wonderful colleagues and students in and around Montreal.  Moreover, I am fortunate to continue to be intrigued by songbirds and with questions regarding animal and human communication.  

Photo courtesy of Ms. Raina Fan.