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Decrystallization of adult birdsong by perturbation of auditory feedback


Young birds learn to sing by using auditory feedback to compare their own vocalizations to a memorized or innate song pattern; ifthey are deafened as juveniles, they will not develop normal songs1,2. The completion of song development is called crystallization. After this stage, song shows little variation in its temporal or spectral properties. However, the mechanisms underlying this stability are largely unknown. Here we present evidence that auditory feedback is actively used in adulthood to maintain the stability of song structure. We found that perturbing auditory feedback during singing in adult zebra finches caused their songto deteriorate slowly. This ‘decrystallization’ consisted of a marked loss of the spectral and temporal stereotypy seen in crystallized song, including stuttering, creation, deletion and distortion ofsong syllables. After normal feedback was restored, these deviations gradually disappeared and the original song was recovered. Thus, adult birds that do not learn new songs nevertheless retain a significant amount of plasticity in the brain.

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Figure 1: Protocols for constructing the feedback signals.
Figure 2: Normal and decrystallized birdsong spectrograms.
Figure 3: Decrystallization of a single syllable.
Figure 4: Time course of decrystallization and recovery.

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We thank B. Pesaran and M. Sahani for discussions on data analysis, and R. Egnor, M. Fee, G. Laurent and M. Schmidt for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by a grant from the NIMH.

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Correspondence to Anthony Leonardo.

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Leonardo, A., Konishi, M. Decrystallization of adult birdsong by perturbation of auditory feedback. Nature 399, 466–470 (1999).

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