Neural Codes for Perception and Production of Learned Acoustic Elements in the Mammalian Brain

2017 Seed Grant
Michael Yartsev, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley

Language acquisition occurs through a process called ‘vocal learning’. This process requires the ability to deliberately and purposefully modify vocal production signals based on auditory feedback and is a key requirement for human spoken language. What is it about the mammalian brain that allows us to learn our language? This is one of the most enigmatic and understudied questions in neuroscience history. The main challenge has been the striking sparsity of vocal learning abilities amongst mammalian species. Here, we take an entirely novel approach towards bridging this major gap of knowledge and will utilize one of the only known non-human vocal learning mammals: the bat. Using an array of novel technologies that we have been developing and implementing in the bat we aim to uncover the neurobiological basis of language learning in the mammalian brain. The proposed work will have a significant impact on the field of neuroscience and beyond, including sensory ecology, medicine, evolutionary biology and linguistics. This is due to the fact that it represents the first neurobiological interrogation of vocal learning in a mammal, thus overcoming a major and long-lasting roadblock in neuroscience research. This model will make it possible to understand how vocal learning is encoded in the mammalian brain and therefore may provide insights into the evolution of human speech. Additionally, establishing this model will allow us to make comparisons between mammalian and avian systems- the latter of which is where most animal studies in vocal learning have been performed. Lastly, speech and language development disorders affect a large number of children and adults, thus significantly influencing the welfare of individuals and society. It is thus critical that we understand the neurobiological underpinnings of language development in the mammalian brain in order to improve diagnostics, enable early interventions and aid in developing new therapeutic approaches in a mammalian model system that can be more easily translated to humans.