Thalamus drives vocal onsets in the zebra finch courtship songDOI
While motor cortical circuits contain information related to specific movement parameters1, long-range inputs also have a critical role in action execution2,3. Thalamic projections can shape premotor activity2,3,4,5,6 and have been suggested7 to mediate the selection of short, stereotyped actions comprising more complex behaviours8. However, the mechanisms by which thalamus interacts with motor cortical circuits to execute such movement sequences remain unknown. Here we find that thalamic drive engages a specific subpopulation of premotor neurons within the zebra finch song nucleus HVC (proper name) and that these inputs are critical for the progression between vocal motor elements (that is, ‘syllables’). In vivo two-photon imaging of thalamic axons in HVC showed robust song-related activity, and online perturbations of thalamic function caused song to be truncated at syllable boundaries. We used thalamic stimulation to identify a sparse set of thalamically driven neurons within HVC, representing ~15% of the premotor neurons within that network. Unexpectedly, this population of putative thalamorecipient neurons is robustly active immediately preceding syllable onset, leading to the possibility that thalamic input can initiate individual song components through selectively targeting these ‘starter cells’. Our findings highlight the motor thalamus as a director of cortical dynamics in the context of an ethologically relevant behavioural sequence.