Complex behaviors are made possible by the ability of the brain to step through well-defined sequences of neural states. A central question in neuroscience is how complex sequential streams of sensory input are used by the brain to generate natural, biologically meaningful behavior. In the Daou laboratory, we aim to uncover the circuit principles that enable sequence generation during a well-characterized learned behavior: the song of the zebra finch. Songbirds, like humans, are capable of learning their vocalizations from a ‘tutor’, usually a parent, in a process that requires intense practice throughout development, strikingly similar to the process humans undergo to learn how to speak. We therefore explore neural sequence generation in the brain and the temporal precision that neurons in specific regions of the brain exhibit during specific complex motor behaviors (like the bird’s song).
This ability of the brain to generate temporally precise and stereotyped neural activity is the backbone of most of the complex tasks that underlies our everyday life such as speech, playing musical instruments, etc, yet despite its fundamental importance, very little is known about it neurobiological underpinnings. To approach this problem, our experiments include electrophysiological studies (intracellular and extracellular) from brain slices, in sleeping birds, and in freely-moving singing birds, from single units to multisite recordings, recordings and analyses of developing birds, other behavioral approaches, and applying a broad range of histological techniques.
In addition to that, our work draws from a set of computational and physiological techniques including calcium imaging, immunohistochemistry, neuroanatomy, mathematical modeling and software development. Finally, our approach is also highly collaborative, and currently we have collaborations with the laboratories of Daniel Margoliash (Neuroscience, University of Chicago) and Henry Abarbanel (Physics, UCSD).