Brain and Cognitive Consequences of Early-Life Immune System Challenge in a Songbird

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Virginia Tech


Cognition, defined as the mechanism by which an animal acquires, processes, stores, and uses information present in the environment, is a trait that is sensitive to developmental conditions. Existing research supports the idea that the ability to develop and maintain cognitive abilities depends on the physiological condition of the individual, which can be influenced by the early environment. Alterations in maternal care, social stress, and malnutrition are some examples of environmental conditions that impact development and resulting cognitive abilities across taxa. The primary goal of this research was to determine whether immune system challenge during the critical song learning period in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) would lead to long term negative impacts on song quality and learning, spatial learning, and neophobia. Immune challenge during this period of development did not produce long term impacts on learning or memory, nor did it lead to any changes in neophobic responses. However, birds that were hatched later in a clutch performed better on the motoric and spatial tasks, and were less neophobic. Future research in zebra finches that can describe the variation in song attributes as a function of hatching order would be a useful first step in determining a mechanistic link between hatch order and song learning outcomes.



immune challenge, developmental stress, songbird, learning and cognition