Michale Fee studies how the brain learns and generates complex sequential behaviors, with a focus on the songbird as a model system. Birdsong is a complex behavior that young birds learn from their fathers and it provides an ideal system to study the neural basis of learned behavior. Because the parts of the bird's brain that control song learning are closely related to human circuits that are disrupted in brain disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's disease, Fee hopes the lessons learned from birdsong will provide new clues to the causes and possible treatment of these conditions.
Playing an instrument or riding a bike requires a complex sequence of movements. Michale Fee is interested in the brain mechanisms underlying this kind of learned behavior. By studying birdsong, Fee hopes to understand the neural and biophysical mechanisms underlying the generation and learning of complex sequences, and to develop advanced optical and electrical techniques for measurement of brain activity in behaving animals. He has recently shown that a brain area known as the higher vocal center (HVC) works like the conductor of an orchestra to control the tempo of the song.
Just has human babies babble before they can speak, a young bird learns to sing by trial and error. They experiment with a variety of sounds and they select the sounds that most closely resemble the memory of their father's song. Fee studies zebra finches to determine where the brain stores its memory of the father's song, how it compares this memory with its own attempts to produce a copy, and how it reinforces the brain connections that produce good copies while eliminating those that do not.
The answers could have implications far beyond the field of birdsong. Most learned behavior involves trial and error, and this in turn requires variability on which learning can operate. How the brain sets the right balance between too much and too little variability, and how that balance is disrupted by disease, are some of the questions that Fee expects to tackle in the future.
Fee joined the McGovern Institute in 2003 and is currently the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He received his PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford University in 1992. Before moving to MIT, he was a principal investigator in the Biological Computation Research Department at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.
Image: Kent Dayton