Research

Zebra finch pair

How does the brain evaluate behavior?

A major goal of neuroscience is to understand how the brain produces behavior. But to produce complex learned behavior, the brain first needs to evaluate behavior. The central question that drives the Gadagkar Lab is: How do brains evaluate behaviors - both self-generated and the behaviors of others?

Neural mechanisms of skilled social behavior: How does the brain implement practice, performance, and preference?

The goal of the Gadagkar Lab is to combine the advantages of the zebra finch courtship song system with state-of-the-art computational, theoretical, and experimental techniques to study how the brain implements reinforcement learning through the stages of practice, performance, and preference.

Graphich showing the stages of practice, performance, and preference in reinforcement learning

Many of our socially relevant motor skills such as speaking or playing a musical instrument are not innately programmed but are acquired and maintained through a process of trial and error or reinforcement. First, during the practice phase, these complex motor sequences are learned by matching exploratory motor output to internal goals or templates. Second, these newly acquired sequences are performed to a socially significant target audience in a highly stereotyped manner. Third, the audience evaluates the performance, shows a preference for certain features like stereotypy and virtuosity, and provides feedback to the performer. These three stages of practice, performance, and preference serve the goal of learning motor skills critical for social life, yet we understand very little about the neural mechanisms underlying these processes.

Dopamine-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical circuits subserving reinforcemnt learning are evolutionalrity conserved in mammals and birds

The songbird, with its highly tractable song circuit, is an excellent model system to address this problem. The adult zebra finch song is a learned, stereotyped motor sequence, and juvenile finches learn to imitate their tutor’s song (the internal goal) by trial and error. Furthermore, male songbirds ‘practice’ their songs alone with the ultimate goal of ‘performing’ to a female. Female finches evaluate male songs directed at them and show a ‘preference’ for the most stereotyped and attractive songs.