Why we want to do what we want to do
Social learning leads to sustained changes in individual phenotype. Social learning is a particularly potent form of knowledge and skill acquisition because it can rapidly spread behaviors through a population. Understanding the biological basis of this potent behavioral phenomenon is relevant for treating neurological disorders that interfere with social learning in animals (like autism in humans). However, despite this significance, the molecular mechanisms underlying social learning remain ambiguous.
Several features of the natural vocal imitation behavior of some flourishing species of birds make them invaluable for understanding not only the brain mechanisms for learned vocal communication but also that for social learning (i.e., cultural transmission).
What we want to do
Our current objective is to begin to gain a mechanistic understanding of the brain’s molecular activities that motivates either the production of culturally transmissible behavior or learning via cultural transmission.
How we want to do what we want to do
We use zebra finch songbirds (like the one pictured on the homepage) to explore and hypothesize about the molecular cell activities necessary for motivating birdsong production. In this manner, we also investigate learning via cultural transmission.
Our research involves manipulating social experience and/or the production of self-generated singing behavior and mapping brain gene expression and activity at a cellular level. Conversely, we also are working to manipulate gene expression and activity and subsequently measure effects on predicted gene networks and behavior.
We study the molecular biological basis of social learning in vocal learning birds to understand the mechanisms of evolution that shape cultural transmission, which could be useful for understanding autism.