Neuromorphological changes during vocal development in zebra finches - Investigating how learning to sing shapes a songbird’s brain

Like human infants learning to speak, young songbirds learn to sing by imitating the songs of the adult conspecifics around them. They start by producing unstructured, variable vocalizations similar to the babbling of toddlers, and keep practicing towards increasingly complex songs. During this process, the song system, a complex network of interconnected brain nuclei responsible for song learning and production, adapts in response to auditory input and the vocal motor output produced by the bird (Huang et al., 2018). Understanding the stunning brain restructuring that accompanies the maturation of the song system has the potential to shed light on our understanding of both vocal learning and complex motor skills.

Available projects: We offer multiple projects focusing on understanding the morphological basis of connectivity changes within targeted neuron populations during song system development that accompany vocal learning. We use both classical and state of the art neuroimaging techniques such as immunohistochemistry, tissue clearing, expansion and light sheet microscopy, confocal microscopy, and brainbow labelling (Düring et al., 2019; Rocha et al., 2019). Students will be familiarized with the entire workflow with a strong focus on either pre‑processing and imaging, or post-processing and image analysis.

References: Düring, D. N., Rocha, M. D., Dittrich, F., Gahr, M., and Hahnloser, R. H. R. (2019). Expansion Light Sheet Microscopy Resolves Subcellular Structures in Large Portions of the Songbird Brain. Front. Neuroanat. 13. doi:10.3389/fnana.2019.00002.
Huang, Z., Khaled, H. G., Kirschmann, M., Gobes, S. M., and Hahnloser, R. H. (2018). Excitatory and inhibitory synapse reorganization immediately after critical sensory experience in a vocal learner. Elife 7, 1–23. doi:10.7554/eLife.37571.
Rocha, M. D., Düring, D. N., Bethge, P., Voigt, F. F., Hildebrand, S., Helmchen, F., et al. (2019). Tissue Clearing and Light Sheet Microscopy: Imaging the Unsectioned Adult Zebra Finch Brain at Cellular Resolution. Front. Neuroanat. 13. doi:10.3389/fnana.2019.00013.


A general interest in neuroanatomy and imaging is desired. Some lab and microscopy experience or prior knowledge on image analysis are a plus.


Daniel Düring, dnd (at)
Mariana Rocha, mdr (at)

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