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A Potential Neural Substrate for Processing Functional Classes of Complex Acoustic Signals

Abstract : Categorization is essential to all cognitive processes, but identifying the neural substrates underlying categorization processes is a real challenge. Among animals that have been shown to be able of categorization, songbirds are particularly interesting because they provide researchers with clear examples of categories of acoustic signals allowing different levels of recognition, and they possess a system of specialized brain structures found only in birds that learn to sing: the song system. Moreover, an avian brain nucleus that is analogous to the mammalian secondary auditory cortex ( the caudo-medial nidopallium, or NCM) has recently emerged as a plausible site for sensory representation of birdsong, and appears as a well positioned brain region for categorization of songs. Hence, we tested responses in this non-primary, associative area to clear and distinct classes of songs with different functions and social values, and for a possible correspondence between these responses and the functional aspects of songs, in a highly social songbird species: the European starling. Our results clearly show differential neuronal responses to the ethologically defined classes of songs, both in the number of neurons responding, and in the response magnitude of these neurons. Most importantly, these differential responses corresponded to the functional classes of songs, with increasing activation from non-specific to species-specific and from species-specific to individual-specific sounds. These data therefore suggest a potential neural substrate for sorting natural communication signals into categories, and for individual vocal recognition of same-species members. Given the many parallels that exist between birdsong and speech, these results may contribute to a better understanding of the neural bases of speech.
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Isabelle George, Hugo Cousillas, Jean-Pierre Richard, Martine Hausberger. A Potential Neural Substrate for Processing Functional Classes of Complex Acoustic Signals. PLoS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2008, 3 (5), pp.e2203. ⟨10.1371/journal.pone.0002203⟩. ⟨hal-01303559⟩

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