Dr. Frank  Johnson

B341 PDB
Florida State University
Department of Psychology
1107 W. Call Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306-4301
(850) 644-8566

University of California, Riverside

Lab Website

Graduate Students
  Mark  Basista Mark Basista
C476 PDB
(850) 644-9876

  Kevin  Elliott Kevin Elliott
C476 PDB
(850) 644-9876

  Derrick  Shaughnessy Derrick Shaughnessy
PDB C476
(850) 644-9876

Dr. Frank Johnson

Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience

Research Interests

Why Study a Songbird?

Much like a human toddler learning language, young songbirds learn to imitate the vocal patterns of an adult during a sensitive period of development. Also like humans, songbird vocal patterns are controlled by a forebrain network that includes pre-motor, striatal, and auditory pathways dedicated to processing vocal sounds and gestures. The striking behavioral and neural similarities between songbird vocal learning and human language learning suggest a process of convergent evolution, making songbirds an ideal animal model to study the neural and molecular mechanisms that underlie the development of human speech. In my laboratory we investigate the behavioral, cellular, and molecular processes that enable the songbird brain to learn and generate vocal sounds, a property once thought to be uniquely human.

Song Behavior

High Resolution Measurement of an Abundant Vocal Signal

Although few of us take the time to count them all, humans produce several thousand words per day, a corpus of behavior characterized by complex variation in phonology and syntax. Songbirds do something similar. Adult songbirds produce their learned vocal patterns several hundred times each day, resulting in the production of several thousand song syllables each day. We are currently engaged in the development of a high resolution measurement strategy capable of capturing the variation in phonology and syntax inherent in whole days of recorded birdsong. Key collaborators and colleagues on this project are Dr. Richard Bertram (FSU Department of Mathematics) and Dr. Wei Wu (FSU Department of Statistics).

The Brain/Environment Interface

Gene Expression That Enables Neural Plasticity and Learning

In addition to remarkable vocal skills, another source of our enthusiasm for the songbird is the prominent anatomy of the neural circuit that controls learned song. The discrete anatomy of the song control system makes it an ideal place to search for the neuronal gene products that form the dynamic interface between brain and environment.

How Does the Song Control System Work?

Towards a Theory of Functional Brain Architecture

One of the great remaining challenges in neuroscience is the construction of a general theory of brain function. How, exactly, does it all work? While humility demands that we acknowledge the awesome magnitude of this task, ongoing experiments designed to delineate the functional anatomy of the song control system promise significant advances toward the development of such a theory.

Selected Recent Publications

Elliott KC, Wu W, Bertram R, Johnson F. Disconnection of a basal ganglia circuit in juvenile songbirds attenuates the spectral differentiation of song syllables.. Dev Neurobiol. 74(6):574-90. (2014)
Bertram R, Daou A, Hyson RL, Johnson F, Wu W. Two neural streams, one voice: Pathways for theme and variation in the songbird brain.. Neuroscience. 26;277C:806-817. (2014)
Daou A, Ross MT, Johnson F, Hyson RL, Bertram R. Electrophysiological characterization and computational models of HVC neurons in the zebra finch.. J Neurophysiol. 110(5):1227-45. (2013)
Stauffer TR, Elliott KC, Ross MT, Basista MJ, Hyson RL, Johnson F. Axial organization of a brain region that sequences a learned pattern of behavior.. J Neurosci.. 32(27), 9312-9322. (2012) PDF
Thompson JA, Basista MJ, Wu W, Bertram R, & Johnson F. Dual Pre-Motor Contribution to Songbird Syllable Variation. J Neurosci. 31(1), 322-330. (2011)
Thompson JA, Johnson F. HVC microlesions do not destabilize the vocal patterns of adult male zebra finches with prior ablation of LMAN. Developmental Neurobiology. 67:205-18. (2007)
Johnson F, Whitney O. Singing-driven gene expression in the developing songbird brain. Physiology Behavior. 86:390-8. (2005)
Whitney O, Johnson F. Motor-induced transcription but sensory-regulated translation of ZENK in socially interactive songbirds. The Journal of Neurobiology. 65:251-9. (2005)
Fowler CD, Johnson F, and Wang ZX. Estrogen regulation of cell proliferation and distribution of estrogen receptor-alpha in the brains of adult female prairie and meadow voles. J Comp Neurol. 489:166-179. (2005) PDF
Whitney O, Soderstrom K, Johnson F. CB1 cannabinoid receptor activation inhibits a neural correlate of song recognition in an auditory/perceptual region of the zebra finch telencephalon. Journal of Neurobiology. 56,266-74. (2003)