A fundamental question of basic neuroscience with regard to skill learning is: how do neural circuits evaluate behavioral outcomes in relation to a goal? Procedural skill learning involves goal-directed evaluation of behavioral outcomes, which gradually shapes functional neural circuits to select appropriate actions. Circuits for skill learning are vested in recurrent cortico-basal ganglia loops, and these distributed networks are highly amenable to experimental dissection of precise neural mechanisms.
Vocal learning in songbirds provides a powerful model for studying the control of experience-dependent skill learning by cortico-basal ganglia circuits during development. Like human infants, juvenile songbirds engage in a goal-oriented process in which evaluation of vocal utterances against a memory of sounds learned from a tutor (the goal) guides gradual acquisition of learned behavior. As in other forms of skill learning, successful acquisition requires the comparison of self-generated behavioral feedback to a goal representation.
We use a combination of behavior, electrophysiology, optogenetic manipulations, and neuroanatomical definition of functional circuits to study learning and sensitive periods. These data are relevant to diseases such as Parkinson’s, addiction, Tourette’s, OCD, and others.