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Dr. Mooney lab’s research aims to identify the neural substrates for communication. They use both songbird and rodents to achieve these aims. Songbirds are one of the few non-human animals that learn to vocalize and serve as the preeminent model in which to identify neural mechanisms for vocal learning. The songbird is ideal for this purpose because of its well-described capacity to vocally imitate the songs of other birds, and because its brain has a constellation of discrete, interconnected brain regions (i.e., song control nuclei, referred to collectively as the song system) that function in the patterning, perception, learning and maintenance of song.
There are two major foci to their songbird studies: elucidating how and where auditory and motor information about learned vocalizations is encoded in the brain; identifying the mechanisms via which auditory experience modifies vocal output, as occurs during sensitive periods for vocal learning. They also study the neurobiology of audition and vocalization in mice. Although mice do not appear to be vocal learners, they do vocalize and produce other sounds as a consequence of their movements. A major focus of their current research is to understand how vocal motor and auditory regions of the brain interact during vocalizations and other sound-producing behaviors to help the organism distinguish self-generated sounds from other sounds in the environment. They are using both wild type and genetically modified mice to identify the central neural mechanisms that underlie this form of sensorimotor integration.
They use a wide range of techniques in their research, including in vivo multiphoton neuronal imaging, chronic recording of neural activity in freely behaving animals, in vivo and in vitro intracellular recordings from identified neurons, and manipulation of neuronal activity using either electrical microstimulation, focal cooling or optogenetic methods. Their group also has extensive experience with viral transgenic methods and with behavioral analysis, especially in quantifying acoustic features of vocalizations. Together, these methods provide a broad technical approach to understanding how the brain harnesses sensory information to adaptively modify behavior.