Exploring sex differences in the adult zebra finch brain:In vivodiffusion tensor imaging andex vivosuper-resolution track density imaging

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Zebra finches are an excellent model to study the process of vocal learning, a complex socially-learned tool of communication that forms the basis of spoken human language. So far, structural investigation of the zebra finch brain has been performed ex vivo using invasive methods such as histology. These methods are highly specific, however, they strongly interfere with performing whole-brain analyses and exclude longitudinal studies aimed at establishing causal correlations between neuroplastic events and specific behavioral performances. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to implement an in vivo Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) protocol sensitive enough to detect structural sex differences in the adult zebra finch brain. Voxel-wise comparison of male and female DTI parameter maps shows clear differences in several components of the song control system (i.e. Area X surroundings, the high vocal center (HVC) and the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium (LMAN)), which corroborate previous findings and are in line with the clear behavioral difference as only males sing. Furthermore, to obtain additional insights into the 3-dimensional organization of the zebra finch brain and clarify findings obtained by the in vivo study, ex vivo DTI data of the male and female brain were acquired as well, using a recently established super-resolution reconstruction (SRR) imaging strategy. Interestingly, the SRR-DTI approach led to a marked reduction in acquisition time without interfering with the (spatial and angular) resolution and SNR which enabled to acquire a data set characterized by a 78 μm isotropic resolution including 90 diffusion gradient directions within 44 h of scanning time. Based on the reconstructed SRR-DTI maps, whole brain probabilistic Track Density Imaging (TDI) was performed for the purpose of super resolved track density imaging, further pushing the resolution up to 40 μm isotropic. The DTI and TDI maps realized atlas-quality anatomical maps that enable a clear delineation of most components of the song control and auditory systems. In conclusion, this study paves the way for longitudinal in vivo and high-resolution ex vivo experiments aimed at disentangling neuroplastic events that characterize the critical period for vocal learning in zebra finch ontogeny.

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