Project Overview

Social influence on the development of vocal learning and brain circuits

Faculty Sponsor

Wan-chun Liu (


Psychological and Brain Sciences


The goal of this research project is to investigate social influence on the development of vocal learning and neural circuits, by using songbirds as animal model.  In humans, social interaction between parents and offspring during the prenatal or early postnatal period has profound influences on the development of speech or language learning. It remains unclear what aspects of social interaction are critical for speech development, and what specific acoustic features are affected by social interaction. Moreover, the underlying neural, genetic, and behavioral mechanisms of social influence on vocal learning remain largely unknown. To identify the neurogenetic mechanisms of social influence on vocal learning circuits, we use songbirds as an animal model. Songbirds provide an excellent model due to their socially dependent vocal learning and well-defined, forebrain “song circuitry” which allow us to manipulate their social variables, vocal behaviors, and associated genes or brain circuits.
        To achieve this goal, I seek to use multidisciplinary approaches that integrate behavioral, gene expression, and brain circuit studies: (a) Behaviorally, use an automated tracking system to monitor and quantify the social interaction of multiple animals (including parents and juveniles) simultaneously, this device allows us to analyze social/ vocal interaction quantitatively in a semi-nature, family setting. (b) Genetically, manipulate expression of candidate genes that are associated with social or vocal learning. We will make local knock-downs of candidate genes or create transgenic songbirds to manipulate the social interaction. (c) Use drug administration to manipulate brain circuits for vocal learning or social interaction to identify the key social factors, behavior components, and brain circuitry that are important for vocal development.
       Students who work on this project will receive different training and skills and they will work together as a team, learn from each other, and participate in weekly group discussion. This multidisciplinary approach will provide students an integrative view on conducting scientific research.

Student Qualifications

Students who are interested in neurobiological mechanism or molecular genetics of behavior are strongly encouraged to apply for this position. Students who have one of the following trainings will have the first priority: (1) molecular biology (for example, Bio182); or (2) familiar with computer softwares or experience in behavioral research; or (3) experience in neuroanatomy study. 

Number of Student Researchers

3 students

Project Length

8 weeks

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (