The song system of songbirds, a set of brain nuclei necessary for song learning and production, has distinctive morphological and functional properties. Utilizing differential display, we searched for molecular components involved in song system regulation. We identified a cDNA (zRalDH) that encodes a class 1 aldehyde dehydrogenase, zRalDH was highly expressed in various song nuclei and synthesized retinoic acid efficiently. Brain areas expressing zRalDH generated retinoic acid. Within song nucleus HVC, only projection neurons not undergoing adult neurogenesis expressed zRalDH. Blocking zRalDH activity in the HVC of juveniles interfered with normal song development. Our results provide conclusive evidence for localized retinoic acid synthesis in an adult vertebrate brain and indicate that the retinoic acid-generating system plays a significant role in the maturation of a learned behavior.
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