We show that presentation of individual canary song syllables results in distinct expression patterns of the immediate-early gene ZENK in the caudomedial neostriatum (NCM) of adult canaries. Information on the spatial distribution and labeling of stained cells provides for a classification of ZENK patterns that (1) accords to the organization of stimuli into families, (2) preserves the stimuli intrafamily relationships, and (3) confers salience to natural over artificial stimuli, resulting in a nonclassical tonotopic map. Moreover, complex syllable maps cannot be reduced to any linear combinations of simple syllable maps. These properties arise from the collective response of NCM neurons to auditory stimuli, rather than from the behavior of single neurons. The syllabic representation described here may constitute an important step toward deciphering the rules of birdsong auditory representation.
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