Sarah M.N. Woolley

Scholar: 2007

Awarded Institution
Columbia University
Department of Psychology


Research Interests

Neural mechanisms of social communication and perception 

Our work focuses on understanding how the perception of communication sounds is accomplished in the brain. In songbirds, we study how the brain codes vocalizations at successive neural processing stages, and how that neural coding is related to experience, sensory system design, and species evolution. Songbirds are particularly interesting because they learn to recognize, respond to and produce the complex songs of other birds They use their songs to communicate socially, in the contexts of mating and self advertisement. This makes them useful systems for understanding how complex sensory signals are encoding and decoded by the brain and how that process results in social communication. The lab currently has four directions that address how the brain functions during song processing/perception.  

First, some auditory neurons in the songbird brain encode songs differently from other sounds. Their basic tuning properties appear to vary depending on the sounds that birds hear and they appear to be specialized for coding song. Using electrophysiology, anatomy and computational analysis techniques, we are studying the mechanisms of tuning plasticity in these sensory neurons, and how that plasticity is related to perception. 

Second, we are interested in how experience shapes behavioral and neural responses to song, and sound in general. We study this by manipulating the acoustic experience of young birds and the social context of auditory processing in adults. We then examine how the responses of auditory neurons and behavioral measures of perception differ as a function of developmental experience and social context.  

Third, we are interested in the co-evolution of vocal behavior and auditory perception. We use electrophysiology and behavioral analyses to understand how the auditory system differs functionally among songbird species with songs that differ markedly in acoustic composition.  

Fourth, we are interested in the salient acoustic aspects of songs for recognition and discrimination. We use the manipulation of the acoustic properties of songs and behavioral techniques to address this.  

2009 National Organization for Hearing Research Foundation Research Award

Recipient of a National Science Foundation research grant and NIH/NIDCD R01