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Supplementary methods and figures from Birdsong as a window into language origins and evolutionary neuroscience

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journal contribution
posted on 16.10.2019 by Caitlin Aamodt, Madza Farias-Virgens, Stephanie Ann White
Humans and songbirds share the key trait of vocal learning, manifested in speech and song, respectively. Striking analogies between these behaviours include that both are acquired during developmental critical periods when the brain's ability for vocal learning peaks. Both behaviours show similarities in the overall architecture of their underlying brain areas, characterized by cortico-striato-thalamic loops and direct projections from cortical neurons onto brainstem motor neurons that control the vocal organs. These neural analogies extend to the molecular level, with certain song control regions sharing convergent transcriptional profiles with speech-related regions in the human brain. This evolutionary convergence offers an unprecedented opportunity to decipher the shared neurogenetic underpinnings of vocal learning. A key strength of the songbird model is that it allows for the delineation of activity-dependent transcriptional changes in the brain that are driven by learned vocal behaviour. To capitalize on this advantage, we used previously published datasets from our laboratory and that correlate gene co-expression networks to features of learned vocalization within and after critical period closure to probe the functional relevance of genes implicated in language. We interrogate specific genes and cellular processes through converging lines of evidence: human-specific evolutionary changes, intelligence-related phenotypes and relevance to vocal learning gene co-expression in songbirds.This article is part of the theme issue ‘What can animal communication teach us about human language?’.