Growth and splitting of neural sequences in songbird vocal development


Neural sequences are a fundamental feature of brain dynamics underlying diverse behaviours, but the mechanisms by which they develop during learning remain unknown. Songbirds learn vocalizations composed of syllables; in adult birds, each syllable is produced by a different sequence of action potential bursts in the premotor cortical area HVC. Here we carried out recordings of large populations of HVC neurons in singing juvenile birds throughout learning to examine the emergence of neural sequences. Early in vocal development, HVC neurons begin producing rhythmic bursts, temporally locked to a ‘prototype’ syllable. Different neurons are active at different latencies relative to syllable onset to form a continuous sequence. Through development, as new syllables emerge from the prototype syllable, initially highly overlapping burst sequences become increasingly distinct. We propose a mechanistic model in which multiple neural sequences can emerge from the growth and splitting of a common precursor sequence.