Neuroanatomy of the grey seal brain: Bringing pinnipeds into the neurobiological study of vocal learning

Hoeksema, N., Verga, L., Mengede, J., Van Roessel, C., Villanueva, S., Salazar-Casals, A., Rubio-Garcia, A., Curcic-Blake, B., Vernes, S. C., & Ravignani, A. (2021). Neuroanatomy of the grey seal brain: Bringing pinnipeds into the neurobiological study of vocal learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 376: 20200252. doi:10.1098/rstb.2020.0252.
Comparative studies of vocal learning and vocal non-learning animals can increase our understanding of the neurobiology and evolution of vocal learning and human speech. Mammalian vocal learning is understudied: most research has either focused on vocal learning in songbirds or its absence in non-human primates. Here we focus on a highly promising model species for the neurobiology of vocal learning: grey seals. We provide a neuroanatomical atlas (based on dissected brain slices and magnetic resonance images), a labelled MRI template, a 3D model with volumetric measurements of brain regions, and histological cortical stainings. Four main features of the grey seal brain stand out. (1) It is relatively big and highly convoluted. (2) It hosts a relatively large temporal lobe and cerebellum, structures which could support developed timing abilities and acoustic processing. (3) The cortex is similar to humans in thickness and shows the expected six-layered mammalian structure. (4) Expression of FoxP2 - a gene involved in vocal learning and spoken language - is present in deeper layers of the cortex. Our results could facilitate future studies targeting the neural and genetic underpinnings of mammalian vocal learning, thus bridging the research gap from songbirds to humans and non-human primates.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.
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