The neural basis of how learned vocalizations change during development and in adulthood represents a major challenge facing cognitive neuroscience. This plasticity in the degree to which learned vocalizations can change in both humans and songbirds is linked to the actions of sex steroid hormones during ontogeny but also in adulthood in the context of seasonal changes in birdsong. We investigated the role of steroid hormone signaling in the brain on distinct features of birdsong using adult male canaries (Serinus canaria), which show extensive seasonal vocal plasticity as adults. Specifically, we bilaterally implanted the potent androgen receptor antagonist flutamide in two key brain regions that control birdsong. We show that androgen signaling in the motor cortical-like brain region, the robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA), controls syllable and trill bandwidth stereotypy, while not significantly affecting higher order features of song such syllable-type usage (i.e., how many times each syllable type is used) or syllable sequences. In contrast, androgen signaling in the premotor cortical-like brain region, HVC (proper name), controls song variability by increasing the variability of syllable-type usage and syllable sequences, while having no effect on syllable or trill bandwidth stereotypy. Other aspects of song, such as the duration of trills and the number of syllables per song, were also differentially affected by androgen signaling in HVC versus RA. These results implicate androgens in regulating distinct features of complex motor output in a precise and nonredundant manner.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Vocal plasticity is linked to the actions of sex steroid hormones, but the precise mechanisms are unclear. We investigated this question in adult male canaries (Serinus canaria), which show extensive vocal plasticity throughout their life. We show that androgens in two cortex-like vocal control brain regions regulate distinct aspects of vocal plasticity. For example, in HVC (proper name), androgens regulate variability in syntax but not phonology, whereas androgens in the robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA) regulate variability in phonology but not syntax. Temporal aspects of song were also differentially affected by androgen signaling in HVC versus RA. Thus, androgen signaling may reduce vocal plasticity by acting in a nonredundant and precise manner in the brain.