Different subthreshold mechanisms underlie song selectivity in identified HVc neurons of the zebra finch.
Songbirds learn and maintain their songs via auditory experience. Neurons in many telencephalic nuclei important to song production and development are song selective, firing more to forward auditory playback of the bird's own song (BOS) than to reverse BOS or conspecific songs. Elucidating circuits that generate these responses can localize where auditory experience influences vocalization, bridging cellular and systems analyses of song learning. Song-selective responses in many song nuclei, including the vocal premotor nucleus robustus archistriatalis (RA) and the basal ganglia homolog area X, are thought to originate in nucleus HVc (used as a proper name), which contains interneurons and relay cells that innervate either RA or area X. Previous studies indicated that only X-projecting neurons have auditory responses, leaving open the source of RA's auditory input and the degree to which song selectivity may be refined in HVc. Here, in vivo intracellular recordings from morphologically and electrophysiologically identified HVc neurons revealed that both relay cell types fire song-selectively. However, their firing arises via markedly different subthreshold processes, and only X-projecting neurons appear to be sites for auditory refinement. RA-projecting neurons exhibited purely depolarizing subthreshold responses that were highly song selective and that were excitatory. In contrast, subthreshold responses of X-projecting neurons included less-selective depolarizing and highly selective hyperpolarizing components. Within individual birds, these BOS-evoked hyperpolarizations closely matched interneuronal firing, suggesting that HVc interneurons make restricted inputs onto X-projecting neurons. Because of the two relay cell types' subthreshold differences, factors affecting their resting membrane potentials could enable them to transmit distinct song representations to their targets.
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