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Hidden neural states underlie canary song syntax

By Yarden Cohen, Jun Shen, Dawit Semu, Daniel P Leman, William A. Liberti, L. Nathan Perkins, Derek C. Liberti, Darrell Kotton, Timothy J Gardner

Posted 04 Mar 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/561761

Coordinated skills such as speech or dance involve sequences of actions that follow syntactic rules in which transitions between elements depend on the identity and order of past actions. Canary songs are comprised of repeated syllables, called phrases, and the ordering of these phrases follows long-range rules, where the choice of what to sing depends on song structure many seconds prior. The neural substrates that support these long-range correlations are unknown. Using miniature head-mounted microscopes and cell-type-specific genetic tools, we observed neural activity in the premotor nucleus HVC as canaries explore various phrase sequences in their repertoire. We find neurons that encode past transitions, extending over 4 phrases and spanning up to 4 seconds and 40 syllables. These neurons preferentially encode past actions rather than future actions, can reflect more than a single song history, and occur mostly during the rare phrases that involve history-dependent transitions in song. These findings demonstrate that network dynamics in HVC reflect preceding behavior context relevant to flexible transitions.

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