Project Overview

1. Cognitive function and neural mechanisms of co-song gesture; 2. The effect of artificial light at night on brain plasticity

Faculty Sponsor

Wan-chun Liu (


Psychological and Brain Sciences


Project #1. The main goal of this project is to investigate the cognitive functions and neural mechanisms of co-speech gestures, using songbirds as animal models. In humans, co-speech gestures are closely aligned with speech, they support language acquisition and facilitate language comprehension or emotional expression. However, little is known about the neural or molecular mechanisms that underlie co-speech gestures. An animal model that has comparable vocal learning, gestures and associated neural circuits may provide invaluable insight to understand the underlying mechanisms of co-speech gestures. We recently discovered co-song gestures in a vocal-learning songbird, and will eexamine the cognitive function and neural circuits of co-song gestures. This research might open whole new fields of research exploring a host of important conceptual questions in human speech-gesture research. and provide new insights into the evolution of spoken language and co-speech gestures. 

Projedt #2. The main goal of this proposed research is to investigate how chronic exposure of light pollution, or artificial light at night (ALAN), affects the development of brain plasticity in birds. To investigate these questions, lab-bred songbirds, zebra finches, will be used as an animal model. To determine the effect of ALAN on brain plasticity, in-situ hybridization and immunocytochemistry will be performed to identify the expression of neurotrophic factors  in the brain circuits that regulate learning and memory. This study can potentially contribute invaluable insights to our understanding of neural underpinnings that underlie the long term effects of ALAN.

Please note in your application if you are interested in one or both of these projects.

Student Qualifications

Students who have fundamental knowledge in behavioral neuroscience (i.e., Neur170 or Psyc275) are required. Students who are interested in doing behavioral or neuroscience bench work is desired. 

Number of Student Researchers

3 students

Project Length

8 weeks

Applications open on 10/03/2023 and close on 02/28/2024

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (