A Basal Ganglia Circuit Sufficient to Guide Birdsong Learning

Lei Xiao, Gaurav Chattree, Francisco Garcia Oscos, Mou Cao, Matthew J. Wanat, Todd F. Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Learning vocal behaviors, like speech and birdsong, is thought to rely on continued performance evaluation. Whether candidate performance evaluation circuits in the brain are sufficient to guide vocal learning is not known. Here, we test the sufficiency of VTA projections to the vocal basal ganglia in singing zebra finches, a songbird species that learns to produce a complex and stereotyped multi-syllabic courtship song during development. We optogenetically manipulate VTA axon terminals in singing birds contingent on how the pitch of an individual song syllable is naturally performed. We find that optical inhibition and excitation of VTA terminals are each sufficient to reliably guide learned changes in song. Inhibition and excitation have opponent effects on future performances of targeted song syllables, consistent with positive and negative reinforcement of performance outcomes. These findings define a central role for reinforcement mechanisms in learning vocalizations and demonstrate minimal circuit elements for learning vocal behaviors. Video Abstract: The role of basal ganglia (BG) in learning motor behaviors is poorly understood. Using optogenetic manipulation of axon terminals in singing songbirds, Xiao et al. demonstrate that the ventral tegmental area to BG pathway is sufficient to guide song learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)208-221.e5
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 4 2018


  • basal ganglia
  • birdsong
  • dopamine
  • optogenetics
  • reinforcement learning
  • skill learning
  • songbird
  • ventral tegmental area
  • vocal learning
  • zebra finch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'A Basal Ganglia Circuit Sufficient to Guide Birdsong Learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this