Love songs, bird brains and diffusion tensor imaging

  • De Groof G
  • Van Der Linden A
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Abstract

The song control system of songbirds displays a remarkable seasonal neuroplasticity in species in which song output also changes seasonally. Thus far, this song control system has been extensively analyzed by histological and electrophysiological methods. However, these approaches do not provide a global view of the brain and/or do not allow repeated measurements, which are necessary to establish causal correlations between alterations in neural substrate and behavior. Research has primarily been focused on the song nuclei themselves, largely neglecting their interconnections and other brain regions involved in seasonally changing behavior. In this review, we introduce and explore the song control system of songbirds as a natural model for brain plasticity. At the same time, we point out the added value of the songbird brain model for in vivo diffusion tensor techniques and its derivatives. A compilation of the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data obtained thus far in this system demonstrates the usefulness of this in vivo method for studying brain plasticity. In particular, it is shown to be a perfect tool for long-term studies of morphological and cellular changes of specific brain circuits in different endocrine/photoperiod conditions. The method has been successfully applied to obtain quantitative measurements of seasonal changes of fiber tracts and nuclei from the song control system. In addition, outside the song control system, changes have been discerned in the optic chiasm and in an interhemispheric connection. DTI allows the detection of seasonal changes in a region analogous to the mammalian secondary auditory cortex and in regions of the 'social behavior network', an interconnected group of structures that controls multiple social behaviors, including aggression and courtship. DTI allows the demonstration, for the first time, that the songbird brain in its entirety exhibits an extreme seasonal plasticity which is not merely limited to the song control system as was generally believed.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI)
  • Seasonal plasticity
  • Songbird brain
  • Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

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Authors

  • Geert De Groof

  • Annemie Van Der Linden

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