Genetic identification of a hindbrain nucleus essential for innate vocalization [Neuroscience]
Vocalization in young mice is an innate response to isolation or mechanical stimulation. Neuronal circuits that control vocalization and breathing overlap and rely on motor neurons that innervate laryngeal and expiratory muscles, but the brain center that coordinates these motor neurons has not been identified. Here, we show that the hindbrain nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) is essential for vocalization in mice. By generating genetically modified newborn mice that specifically lack excitatory NTS neurons, we show that they are both mute and unable to produce the expiratory drive required for vocalization. Furthermore, the muteness of these newborns results in maternal neglect. We also show that neurons of the NTS directly connect to and entrain the activity of spinal (L1) and nucleus ambiguus motor pools located at positions where expiratory and laryngeal motor neurons reside. These motor neurons control expiratory pressure and laryngeal tension, respectively, thereby establishing the essential biomechanical parameters used for vocalization. In summary, our work demonstrates that the NTS is an obligatory component of the neuronal circuitry that transforms breaths into calls.
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