After attending a lecture by famous neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in middle school, research associate Vikram Gadagkar Ph.D. ’13 found he had an interest in neuroscience.
His curiosity led him to songbird research, for which he was awarded the Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award in Neuroscience. His research found that dopamine neurons encode performance error in songbirds.
Gadagkar, who currently works in the department of neurobiology and behavior, first decided to study quantitative sciences, before moving to neuroscience.
During his Ph.D., he spent a lot of time with the neuroscience department. Gadagkar went to all the talks the department had while interviewing candidates, and after seeing the talk by Prof. Jesse Goldberg, neurobiology and behavior, he knew it was something he wanted to pursue.
Gadagkar’s research tested the hypothesis that dopamine neurons in birds might convey an error signal for song learning, which would allow birds to know when they are singing the wrong note.
To explain this hypothesis more broadly, Gadagkar said to imagine learning to play a piece on the piano.
“How does the brain know when you are making a mistake?” he asked. “That is kind of the question we are asking.”
To explore this question, Gadagkar and his colleagues used male zebra finches. While the birds were singing, the researchers recorded the song and took the first part of syllable A and played it over syllable B, a method called ‘distorted auditory feedback.’ This method tricked the birds into thinking they heard the wrong note.
Gadagkar and his colleagues discovered that the dopamine neurons were suppressed immediately after distortions which suggested that the dopamine neurons were involved with error signals.
One of the biggest challenges that Gadagkar faced during the research was locating the dopamine neurons.
“It is very difficult,” Gadagkar told The Sun. “We would come to lab everyday and hunt for these neurons.”
His time and effort in the lab, however, earned him the Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award, supported by the Gruber foundation, which honors scientists “for major discoveries that have advanced understanding of the nervous system,” according to their website. Recipients of the award receive a cash prize of $25,000 and a gold laureate pin.
Other than the cash prize, the biggest reward Gadagkar said he received was the exposure.
“There is a community of scientists that I can now talk to,” Gadagkar said.
In the future, Gadagkar is looking to take this research further in three different ways. Firstly, he wants to observe the difference in dopamine activity in the songbirds during practice and performance. He also wants to observe how the female songbird decodes the song and relates it to mating. Finally, the Gadagkar wants to explore whether birds use this trial and error learning when they are very young.