sarah woolley lab

What bird brains can teach us about learning, perception and variability

News & Photos

October 2018: Sarah’s review of recent work on the role of dopamine in Area X on learning and plasticity is now available in Current Opinions in Neurobiology.  Access it here, for free, until December 11th.



September 2018: Erin presented her data on how adult mating experience influences preference at the annual Integrative Neuroscience Retreat as well as at the recently resurrected Rockfeller Songbird Conference.





August 2018: Helena’s paper on how developmental song exposure modulates IEG expression in dopamine neurons of the VTA is out in Scientific reports.  You can find it here:




May 2018: Sarah gave talks at the Okinawan Institute of Science and Technology (OIST, it’s AMAZING there) and also chaired and spoke at a session at the International Society of Developmental Neuroscience (ISDN) in Nara Japan on “Development and plasticity of vocal communication systems in human and non-human models.” Rare opportunity to stand in a Noh theater, barefoot, and give a talk about songbirds 🙂 Thanks to Sonja Vernes for documenting on the twitter and Sonja, John Iversen, and Xiaoqin Wang for speaking, it was a great session!


IMG_8594May 2018: Congratulations to Erin Wall for an excellent job on her qualifying exam! Here we are celebrating her success in the (finally) lovely spring sun.


April 2018: Congratulations to our undergraduate Honour’s students Therese Koch, Veronica Rally, Sabrina Hennecke, and Ruth Simberloff.  Best of luck in your next adventures! Here are Ruth and Sabrina in their final seminars describing the challenges of convincing female birds to let you know what they really think about songs.



January 2018: It’s not too late to submit an abstract for the biennial meeting of the International Society of Developmental Neuroscience (ISDN) to be held in Nara Japan May 22-25, 2018.  Sarah is chairing a session on “Development and plasticity of vocal communication systems in human and non-human models” with speakers John Iversen, Sonja Vernes, and Xiaoqin Wang.  Abstract deadline has been extended to February 9.  Join us in Japan, the infamous Nara deer eagerly await your visit!


lisbeth_defenseJanuary 2018: Sarah and Nancy’s paper with collaborators Lisbeth Van Ruijssevelt and Annemie Van der Linden at the University of Antwerp has been accepted at Current Biology.  In it, we describe a novel brain region involved in the evaluation of courtship song in females zebra finches that we uncovered using fMRI, immediate early gene expression, and behavior tests.  The paper formed an important part of Lisbeth’s thesis, here she is learning the PhD handshake following her excellent thesis defense.  You can access the paper here:




December 2017: Sarah gave a talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a course on “the Senses”, finishing off a whirlwind of travel this Fall (including talks in Antwerp, Hokkaido, Tokyo, and DC). The AMNH talk was inside the Senses exhibit at the museum, which is definitely worth checking out.






August 2017: Congratulations to Helena on the completion of her MSc and good luck to Nancy who is headed to Queens College to pursue her MD/PhD.  We will miss them both!




May 2017: Female zebra finches need to hear song during development to show species-typical preferences for high-performance courtship songs and differential EGR1 expression to courtship and non-courtship song in the NCM.  Read more about it in our paper at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:



April 2017: Nancy and Oliver’s paper is officially in press in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B so we went to watch some roller derby to celebrate!




March 2017: Helena, Nancy and Erin will each give a short talk about their work on songbirds at a Music and the Brain event this Saturday, March 11.  Each talk will be accompanied by a 5 minute performance by a student from the McGill Department of Music. More information is available here:

February 2017: Sarah will be co-chairing and speaking at a mini-symposium on female songbirds at this year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting.  The proposal, put together with Leslie Phillmore at Dalhousie University, was just accepted. Yay!



February 2017: Zengin-Toktas and Woolley is now published in PLoS One.  Here are a few of the 15,000 neurons that Yildiz imaged!


December 2016: Check out Sarah’s paper on fast-spiking interneurons and external pallidal neurons in the Journal of Neurophysiology!  You can see a preview on the J. Neurophys Facebook page:

November 2016: Another successful Society for Neuroscience meeting.  This year, Helena represented with her poster on how dopamine infusions can reverse female song preferences.  Helena is also giving a talk for the Biology Graduate Students Department day, you can learn all about neuromodulation of female preferences in just 3 minutes!


June 2016:  When Helena isn’t building computers, she’s reviewing books for the journal Science!  Check out her review of Donald Kroodsma’s book “Listening to a Continent Sing”.

May 2016: Graduation party 2016!  Nancy now has a Master’s degree AND she and Jon have a paper in PNAS, I think that’s why she’s the only person in focus.



March 2016: Oliver won best visual presentation for his poster at the MBSU undergraduate interdepartmental poster fair!




January 2016: Our first student lead paper is in press!  Hannah Schubloom’s beautiful masters thesis data, looking at how the kinds of interactions females have with their mates influences their song preferences and EGR1 expression will be out soon in Developmental Neurobiology.

October 2015: Woolley lab made it’s debut at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago.  Nancy’s poster on how developmental song exposure shapes female preferences was a rousing success!


January 2015: Lisbeth Van Ruijssevelt is visiting us from Anemie Van der Linden’s lab at the University of Antwerp.  She will perform some IEG studies to complement her fMRI work looking at neural responses to directed and undirected song.

October 2014: Sarah’s review paper with Mimi Kao on the role of cortical-basal ganglia circuits in the generation of vocal variability  is now available online.



May 2014: My first Master’s student is graduating. Congratulations, Hannah!




April 2014: Variability arises in the basal ganglia!  Woolley et al., 2014 is now published. Links to the paper and to the really nice preview by Marc Schmidt and Long Ding are now on the publications page. 

And here is a press release from McGill: