The Role of Cannabinoids in Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata) Song Learning

The zebra finch is a small (10 cm long) song bird that are known for their complex song learning behaviors. Song learning in zebra finch has been extensively studied for its applications in the neural bases of human learning, memory and sensorimotor integration.   When the zebra finch became the second bird to have its genome sequenced in 2008, it was determined that much of the genetic code devoted to brain circuitry are similar to the sequences encoding vocal learning in humans. These similarities suggest that gaining an understanding of the zebra finch brain could lead to a greater understanding of human speech and communication disorders such as autism and stuttering.

Stages of Song Learning in Zebra Finch

The zebra finch song is a series of notes made in a distinct order.  The learning of the zebra finch song occurs in several distinct stages (Soderstrom and Tian, 2006).

Auditory Learning Stage

  • Prefledglings memorize the notes and the order in which they are produced while being raised and sung to in the nest.
  • The auditory learning stage usually lasts to 35 days of age.

Sensory-Motor Stage

  • In the sensory-motor stage of song development, the zebra finch memorizes the order of the production of notes and begins to vocalize the notes.
  • Vocal production and auditory feedback are necessary in order to learn during this stage
  • In the sensory-motor stage, the zebra finch first enters a “subsong” period.  During the subsong period, birds learn how to produce distinct notes by controlling their syrinx, the avian vocal organ.
  • Following the successful production of notes, the bird enters the “plastic song” period of sensory motor learning.
  • Periadolescent birds begin to mimic the song learned in the auditory learning stage.

By 90 days of age the bird is capable of consistently reproducing the song presented during auditory learning, and this song will not change for the rest of the lifetime of the bird.

Brain Structures Associated with Song Learning in Zebra Finches

Zebra finches possess an unusually enlarged telencephalon.  Other studies have indicated that enlargement of the telencephalon in passerine birds, including zebra finches, is positively correlated with higher levels of behavioral complexity (Lefebvre et al., 2002, Lefebvre et al., 1997).  Because most of the neurons involved in song learning and production are located within the telencephalon, it has been speculated that an enlarged telencephalon is responsible for the complexity observed in zebra finch song learning (Konishi, 1985 as cited by Charvet and Striedter, 2009).

There are several regions of the zebra finch telencephalon included in song learning and production. Song regions in the rostral (located towards the beak of the bird) forebrain play a role in song learning but are not necessary for adult vocal behavior (Soderstrom and Tian, 2008).   On the other hand, two regions in the caudal telencephalon are important during song learning and recitation of an already learned song as an adult.

Song regions necessary for song learning:

  • lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior neostriatum (IMAN)
  • medial portion of the dorsolateral nucleus of the thalamus  (DLM)
  • area X of striatum  (Area X)

Regions necessary for song learning and vocalization of an already learned song as an adult:

  • higher vocal center  (HVC)
  • robust nucleus of the archistriatum  (RA)

This map of the zebra finch CNS shows relative positions of regions that play a key role in song development. Abbreviations: Area X, area X of striatum; DLM, medial portion of the dorsolateral nucleus of the thalamus; DMrICo, dorsomedial nucleus of the intercollicular complex; HVC, higher vocal center; IMAN, lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior neostriatum; mMAN, medial magnocellular nucleus of the of the anterior neostriatum; RA, robust nucleus of the archistriatum; nXIIts, hypoglossal nucleus, tracheosyringeal portion (Figure taken from Soderstrom and Tian, 2000).

Cannabinoid Receptor Expression in Zebra Finch Telencephalon

The expression of cannabinoid receptors in the telecephalon of zebra finches was initially investigated due to the high CB1 cannabinoid receptor expression on mammalian telencephalon. Results of behavioral studies in rats suggest that cannabinoids play an important role in cognitive function, learning and memory (Hampson and Deadwyler, 1998). Because the zebra finch telencephalon controls song learning, it was proposed that endocannabinoid signaling may play a key role in vocal development (Soderstrom and Johnson, 2000).

The expression of cannabinoid receptor (CB1) in zebra finch telencephalon was measured using Northern blotting and RT-PCR in a study conducted by Soderstrom and Johnson (2000). The Northern blots revealed presence of CB1 mRNA of a similar size to that reported in the rat. The levels of CB1 mRNA in zebra finch also differed over the course of song development.

  • Levels of CB1 mRNA levels were lowest in RNA taken form caudal telencephalon during the auditory learning stage.
  • Increased levels of CB1 mRNA were observed in RNA isolated from the telencephalon during the sensory-motor learning stage of vocal development.
  • RNA isolated from adult telencephalon expressed higher CB1 mRNA levels than RNA isolated during the auditory learning stage, but they were lower than in RNA isolated during the sensory-motor learning stage.

These findings were confirmed by RT-PCR. The results of both of these assays can be seen in the figure below.

Northern blotting and RT-PCR measuring expression of CB1 in zebra finch RNA isolated from caudal RA- and HVC-containing telencephalon taken from adult, 55-day-old, and 20-day-old birds. Panel A. Northern blot of RNA probed with 32P-labeled zebra finch CB1 cDNA. Panel B. RT-PCR results supporting results of Northern blot. (Figure 3 from Soderstrom and Johnson, 2000)

Effects of Cannabinoid Exposure on Vocal Learning in Zebra Finches

The endocannabinoid system in zebra finch (and mammals) is a neurochemical signaling system composed of two G-protein coupled receptors, CB1 and CB2 (Soderstrom et al., 2011).  CB1 is expressed at higher levels in the zebra finch CNS. The endocannabinoid system also employs an array of fatty acid ligands including anandamide and 2-arachidonyl glycerol (2-AG).  These fatty acid ligands are capable of activating CB1.

G-protein-coupled receptors are often regulated by agonist-induced internalization and metabolism in which the duration of agonist effects are limited by receptor expression. Therefore, exogenous cannabinoid-induced alteration of normal vocal development may depend on regulation of endocannabinoids and receptor expression.

When treated with cannabinoid agonist WIN55212-2 (WIN) zebra finches during the sensory-motor learning, a noteable decrease in notes learned and stereotypy score (presence of a distinct pattern) was observed (Soderstrom and Johnson, 2003). It should be noted that mean duration of notes produced did not change.

Effects of cannabinoid exposure during sensory-motor learning on song patterns produced at adulthood. Individuals from sibling pairs raised by the same adult tutor were randomly assigned to treatment (1 mg/kg WIN55212-2) or vehicle control groups . Treatments were given from 50 to 100 days of age as described in the text. Songs were recorded at adulthood (110 days of age) and 10 bouts from each animal were randomly selected for analysis by two independent observers blind to treatment. (a) Cannabinoid-treated birds learned significantly fewer note types . (b) Songs of cannabinoid-treated birds were less well-stereotyped. (c) Mean note duration did not vary as a function of treatment (Figure 1 from Soderstrom and Johnson, 2003).

In order to further elucidate the role of endocannabinoid signaling in vocal development, Soderstrom et al. studied the effects of the cannabinoid receptor agonist WIN55212-2 (WIN) on levels of AG-2 and density of CB1 immunostaining in the zebra finch brain (Soderstrom et al., 2011).  It was determined that when repeatedly exposed to cannabinoid agonist WIN during the sensory-motor stage of vocal development, levels of AG-2 were increased and CB1 immunostaining intensities decreased within the rostral telencephalon.  This trend was not observed following repeated WIN treatment of adult zebra finches.  This disparity suggests that susceptibility to disregulation caused by prolonged exposure to cannabinoids is limited to the developing zebra finch CNS.

The effects of chronic, developmental, cannabinoid treatments on endogenous 2-AG levels in the zebra finch brain are summarized in the figure above. Lipids were extracted, spiked with deuterium-labeled internal standards and subjected to LC-ESI-MS-MS for quantitative analysis of 2-AG. Panel A: 2-AG levels in rostral telencephalon (which contains song regions IMAN and Area X) increase in response to WIN treatment. Significant decreases in 2-AG were observed following developmental WIN treatment. Panel B: No significant effects of repeated WIN treatments given during adulthood on 2-AG levels were observed (Figure 3 from Soderstrom et al., 2011).

The Current Status of Zebra Finch Research

While the papers referenced above have studied the role of cannabinoids in great detail, much remains unknown about the signaling pathways that play a role in song learning.  Because only male zebra finches sing, an investigation of the causes of this sexual dimorphism may be particularly informative.  It has recently been observed that the developmental stressors that impair song learning in males do not affect the female preferences for song complexity (Woodgate et al., 2011).  It has also been determined that exposure to oxytocin may result in an inability to properly vocalize the learned note patterns, similar to autism in humans (Riffle, 2010).

Additional Resources

Audio clip of a Male Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata) giving calls


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Konishi M. 1985. Birdsong: from behavior to neuron. Annu Rev Neurosci 8:125–170.

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Woodgate, J.L., Leitner, S., Catchpole, C. K., Berg, M.L., Bennett, A. T. D., Buchanan, K. L.. (2011). Developmental stressors that impair song learning in males do not appear to affect female preferences for song complexity in the zebra finch. Behavioral Ecology. 21 (3).

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