Fernando Nottebohm

Dorothea L. Leonhardt Distinguished Professor and Director, field Research Center for Ethology and Ecology, Rockefeller University

Speech and language are uniquely human attributes that have profoundly influenced our evolution and behavior. Although many animals communicate with vocal signals, only a few groups, including certain birds, whales, dolphins, and bats are known to share the human ability to learn complex vocal signals. Among these groups, songbirds have by far the most elaborate sounds form communication, except human speech. Professor Nottebohm's pioneering work on the neural control of birdsong, its production, perception and the role of vocal learning, has led to major discoveries with large impacts in the fields of animal behavior and neuroscience, and has made him one of the founders of neuroethology, the study of how the nervous system controls animal behavior.

Fernando Nottebohm (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley 66, B.A. University of California, Berkeley 62) is Dorothea L. Leonhardt Distinguished Professor at Rockefeller University and Director of the Rockefeller Field Research Center for Ethology and Ecology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, and of the American Philosophical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pattison Awards for Distinguished Research in the Neurosciences and the Charles A. Dana Award (which he shared with Masakazu Konishi) for pioneering achievement in the health sciences.

In his first Patten lecture Professor Nottebohm will discuss his work on the vocal development of songbirds, which has provided important new insights into the role of early experience on brain plasticity and motor learning. Dr Nottebohm has been instrumental in using the songbirds as a model system to study a range of critical issues that involve both perception and production of bird song. His theoretical work on the process of vocal learning in songbirds has contributed in substantial way to our current understanding of the biological and neural underpinnings of human language and language development.

At a time when it was believed that any sex differences in the brain would consist only of very subtle anatomical and physiological differences, Dr. Nottebohm's discovery that brain regions controlling singing in birds can be as much as five times larger in males than in females revolutionized our ideas about sex differences and led to extensive studies of how the brains of males and females differentiate during development, how hormones are involved in this process, and how morphological and physiological differences in the brains of males versus females are related to sex differences in behavior.

Professor Nottebohm was also the first to describe neurogenesis in the adult brain. Prior to this discovery, the dogma was that vertebrate animals were born with a fixed number of neurons (brain cells) and that they could never generate new neurons to replace those that were lost as they aged. Dr. Nottebohm's discovery of neurogenesis in the adult brain reversed this dogma. Subsequent studies have found neurogenesis in the adult brain of other vertebrate organisms, and the study of adult neurogenesis is now one of the most exciting fiends in the area of neuroscience. The subject of Professor Nottebohm's second Patten lecture, this field is particularly exciting because of its clinical implications, the idea that new brain cells can be generated in the adult brain offers great promise for the prospect of being able to repair or regenerate brain tissues and circuits damaged due to injury or disease.