Like human language, birdsong is hierarchically organized according to particular syntactic constraints (phonological syntax). Interestingly, birds have also been shown to posses impressive capabilities in recognizing syntactic patterns, even artificial ones, which makes them an attractive, but as yet virtually unexplored, model for research into the neural underpinnings of syntax perception. To address this issue at the neurophysiological level, I propose to apply a high-density electrical neuroimaging technique, based on an array of intracerebral electrodes that measure action potential activity from 64 sites simultaneously, to record activity in auditory and song system nuclei during stimulation with artificial, song-like sequences. First, I will identify cortical areas that are sensitive to short term history of syllables and investigate whether the time scales at which such sensitivity is observed, matches with those necessary for syntax recognition. Second, I will test which types of short-term history sensitivity are involved. I hypothesize the involvement of both acoustic feature-specific adaptation and a distinctly different syllable-specific form of adaptation, where the former may be a causal factor in enabling the latter. Furthermore, I will test for a third form of short-term history sensitivity that has been proposed to be responsible for deviance detection as reflected in mismatch negativity (MMN) in human EEG, and that has been linked to syntactic processing of language. Together, the results may provide support for the hypothesis that phonological syntax is in part represented in activation signatures that reflect time-varying, short-term predictability of syllable occurrence within a sequence. This highly interdisciplinary project lies at the intersection of behavioural neurobiology and linguistics, and should yield an animal model system for the study of neural processes that may also underlie syntax processing in the human brain.
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