Remodeling of Dendritic Spines in the Avian Vocal Motor Cortex Following Deafening Depends on the Basal Ganglia Circuit

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Deafening elicits a deterioration of learned vocalization, in both humans and songbirds. In songbirds, learned vocal plasticity has been shown to depend on the basal ganglia-cortical circuit, but the underlying cellular basis remains to be clarified. Using confocal imaging and electron microscopy, we examined the effect of deafening on dendritic spines in avian vocal motor cortex, the robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA), and investigated the role of the basal ganglia circuit in motor cortex plasticity. We found rapid structural changes to RA dendritic spines in response to hearing loss, accompanied by learned song degradation. In particular, the morphological characters of RA spine synaptic contacts between 2 major pathways were altered differently. However, experimental disruption of the basal ganglia circuit, through lesions in song-specialized basal ganglia nucleus Area X, largely prevented both the observed changes to RA dendritic spines and the song deterioration after hearing loss. Our results provide cellular evidence to highlight a key role of the basal ganglia circuit in the motor cortical plasticity that underlies learned vocal plasticity.

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