Analysis of Neuronal Activity of the Zebra Finch's Song Circuit Nuclei

Elizabeth using large microscope




Professor of Biology

Project Summary

This summer, I analyzed and helped record neuronal activity from specific brain areas that make up the vocal control circuit in the zebra finch. Much is known about how auditory feedback shapes the learning of song in birds, but sensory feedback generated from monitoring pressure within the bird’s air sacs and its role in song remain largely unexplored. To stimulate pressure changes in the air sacs, we inserted two small tubes into a zebra finch’s air sacs, one for pressure stimulation and one for pressure monitoring, and administered small puffs of air at predetermined times within the bird’s breathing cycle. At the same time, I ran recordings in the respiratory-related region of the bird’s brainstem, which was done via inserting a recording electrode down into the bird’s brain until a characteristic neuronal firing pattern was recognized. Ultimately, the goal of these recordings was to figure out which areas of the song circuit receive sensory feedback from the air sacs, and, more specifically, when they receive it. Using a combination of scripts I helped write and waveform sorting software, I was able to help distinguish the sequence of sensory feedback activation within the song circuit. This information helps us understand the role this feedback has within the zebra finch’s song acquisition and vocal correction process. As a result, we can better utilize this model organism for research in vocal learning and speech disorders.

Before starting this project with Dr. Schmidt, I had studied the basic foundations of his research in my courses at Penn: neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and computer science. It is one thing to read about neuroscientific research in textbooks, but performing it yourself requires vigorous application of thought and inventiveness that only experience can teach you. While I have surely learned much about zebra finches, canaries, cowbirds, and much of these birds’ social behaviors and neural circuitry, I have discovered the importance of perseverance, creativity, curiosity, and even humor in scientific research as well. For example, I’ve learned that long, difficult experiments are more memorable and even fun with another experimenter to discuss ideas, whether those thoughts are directly related to the work at hand or more widely derived. Sudden setbacks can be viewed as a challenge to critically evaluate your work, leading to either improvisation of new approaches or reinvention of your end goals. Papers that are normally dry become puzzles that we are invited to disassemble, rearrange, and compare to our own research in our weekly lab meetings. While I already believed that the study of science is exciting before working in Dr. Schmidt’s lab, I now realize through my grant-funded research that the process of science is equally as inspiring and engaging of an activity.