Much as humans acquire speech in early childhood, the zebra finch ( Taeniopygia guttata ) songbird learns to sing from an adult "tutor" during the first three months of life. Within a well-defined critical period (CP), juvenile zebra finches memorize a tutor song that will guide subsequent motor patterning. This sensory learning process is mediated by tutor experience-dependent neuroplasticity within the auditory forebrain. Here, we used longitudinal resting-state fMRI analyses to investigate whether tutor experience also modifies patterns of functional connectivity (FC) within the juvenile zebra finch brain. Eighteen male zebra finches (only males sing) were scanned before, during, and at the end of the CP, as well as at the young adult stage. Prior to the onset of the CP, birds were separated into rearing conditions: Normal (aviary-housed; N =5), Tutored (one adult male tutor and one adult female; N =7), and Isolate (two adult females, isolated from male song; N =6). Brain-wide voxel-wise analyses identified a single cluster overlapping the left caudomedial nidopallium (NCM) of the auditory forebrain that showed developmentally decreasing FC strength in Isolates but stable or increasing FC in Normal and Tutored birds. Additionally, FC between left NCM and left dorsal cerebellum showed a parallel developmental difference. Developmental changes in left NCM FC strength statistically mediated condition-related differences in song stereotypy. These results extend previous reports of tutor experience-dependent plasticity in NCM at epigenetic, genomic, molecular, and cellular levels to the whole-brain functional network level by demonstrating that tutor experience also influences the development of NCM FC. Moreover, these results link NCM FC to the emergence of song stereotypy.
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