Stacy De Florencio
Home Institution: UCLA
UCLA Mentor: Dr. Stephanie A. White
Program: Deans Award
Zebra finches have been candidates of interest to learn more about the neural mechanisms of language production. This is due to the similarities that birdsong and human speech have, such as needing outside, vocal input for a normal song and language development, respectively (Doupe and Kuhl, 1999). Using zebra finches, our lab has shown that practicing song in the morning causes acute (within 2 hours) neurogenetic changes within a song-dedicated basal ganglia region (Scharff and White, 2004), but it is unclear how this behavior affects gene expression in specific cell types. As a pilot study, we identified a pair of juvenile male zebra finch siblings. We manipulated each sibling’s behavior by allowing one to sing freely, while the other was distracted if it attempted to sing. Songs have repeating groups of different syllables called motifs. I used the motifs to compare the similarity between the siblings and their tutor’s song to assess learning and determine the amount of singing. A standardized approach called Song Analysis Pro was used to score the behavior (Tchernichovski et al., 2000). Based on prior work, I predict that gene expression will correlate to the difference in number of motifs sung by each pupil. Future work with more birds should also confirm that gene expression patterns correlated with the amount of learning. Finally, ongoing work using droplet-based single cell sequencing will determine which genetic changes occur in which cell types. Discovering how behavior affects gene expression will allow for more profound insight into how speech and physical therapy work and may highlight molecular pathways that can be pharmacologically targeted to improve therapeutic efficacy.