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Laboratory of Animal Behavior

Fernando Nottebohm
Arnold and Mabel Beckman Professor

This laboratory pioneered in the characterization of brain circuits used for vocal learning and song production in birds and uses these circuits to study the basic biology of neuronal replacement in adult brain. It uses behavioral, anatomical, neurophysiological, endocrinological, cellular and molecular methods to achieve these ends. The song system develops late in ontogeny and is very sensitive to hormones and experience. It consists of a dozen discrete nuclei and their connecting pathways. Spontaneous neuronal replacement occurs in only two of these nuclei, in which new neurons replace older ones. This laboratory is interested in discovering how this comes about and what benefits it confers to the animal. We would like to use this knowledge to induce neuronal replacement in parts of the brain where it does not normally occur and where it could be used for repairing circuit damage.

Thus there is here a blend of basic biology and the hope to glean insights that will have a clinical application.

The laboratory breeds most of its research animals (canaries and zebra finches). In addition, it operates the Field Research Center (FRC) in Millbrook, NY. The FRC has 1200 acres (the area that would be covered by 600 city blocks) of natural habitats 80 miles to the north of our campus, in rural Dutchess County. The FRC also has modern laboratory facilities and living quarters where visitors can stay. We strongly feel that the study of behavior and brain function under natural or naturalistic conditions is an important complement to the study of animals kept in simple laboratory settings, because many aspects of brain function are likely to be underdeveloped or overlooked in captive animals leading a deprived existence. It is the hope of this laboratory that an understanding of spontaneous neuronal replacement in adult, healthy animals will change the way in which we think about brains and learning and that this new knowledge will enable us to repair damaged brains and restore lost functions.