Michael Brainard

Board Member: 2016 - 2018

Scholar: 2003

Awarded Institution
University of California, San Francisco
Department of Physiology and Psychiatry


Research Interests

Sensorimotor Calibration of Vocal Behavior

Research in my laboratory focuses primarily on the question of how experience, particularly during early life, shapes the functioning of the nervous system. To approach this question we are currently using a combination of behavioral and neurophysiological techniques to investigate the mechanisms underlying vocal learning in songbirds.

The study of song learning offers the advantages of a well described behavior that exhibits a variety of general features of learning, and that is subserved by a discrete and extensively investigated set of brain regions. Because many species of songbirds breed well in captivity and develop rapidly, they are well suited for studying processes of developmental plasticity. Song learning proceeds in two stages. First, during a period of sensory learning, young birds listen to and memorize the song of an adult 'tutor'. Then, during a period of sensorimotor learning, they use auditory feedback to gradually refine their own initially rambling vocalizations so that they progressively resemble the previously memorized tutor song. Normal song learning requires appropriate experience during a sensitive period in early development, although recent studies have shown that auditory feedback also contributes to the adult maintenance of precisely calibrated vocal output. These features make song learning a useful model for studying the mechanisms that contribute to vertebrate sensory and sensorimotor learning in general, and to certain components of human language learning in particular; speech acquisition exhibits strikingly similar requirements for memorization and vocal practice during early development and for maintained auditory feedback throughout life.