In the Healey Lab we study rapid estrogen signalling in the cortex. We primarily focus on songbirds to understand how hormones modulate sensorimotor circuits for learning and sensory processing. Our experiments integrate behavior, neural circuits, physiology, anatomy, and molecular biology. We are grateful for research support from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Research in the Healey lab is focused on the neural basis of natural behavior. We study songbirds as our research model for understanding vocal learning and brain plasticity. Over 50 years of intensive study of songbird behavior and brain function have provided a detailed roadmap of the neural circuits that are involved in singing, song learning, and audition (see diagram below). Our lab is interested in how neural circuits for vocal communication are modulated by the actions of local neurochemicals. For example, changing levels of brain estrogens can alter the pattern or 'tone' of neural circuit activity, enabling many flexible outputs from the same circuit. We think this modulation allows interconnected forebrain circuits to subserve a wide variety of complex behaviors, like singing, song learning, and song memory.
The song motor pathway contains circuits that directly pattern song output. Incoming sensory information is processed by HVC, and HVC initiates motor sequences that project out to the peripheral vocal organ, the syrinx, via RA and the hindbrain nucleus nXIIts. The auditory pathway : contains circuits that process sounds, including song. Auditory signals enter the brain at the cochlear nucleus (CN) and are further processed as they pass through the forebrain by nuclei such as NCM and CM. The forebrain loop pathway contains circuits that are important for song learning and song variability. HVC sends projections to a basal ganglia loop (striatal-thalamic-cortical-striatal) which has an important output projection to the song motor pathway at nucleus RA.
The forebrain of vocal learning species, such as humans and songbirds, has several features in common, including local production of steroid hormones (estrogens and androgens). Changes in local steroid levels within forebrain circuits can therefore influence communication behavior and vocal learning. We study these phenomena in songbirds using a variety of technical approaches including in vivo microdialysis, in vivo and in vitro electrophysiology, immunocytochemistry, and neuropharmacology. Songbirds offer a unique model system in which brain steroid production is widespread and especially pronounced, and in which the development and expression of a suite of social behaviors is accessible in the laboratory and natural environments.
Figure from Lee et al., J Neurophysiol, (2017) showing neural recordings from two brain regions (NCM and HVC) in response to sound playback of conspecific song (CON), bird's own song (BOS), and reverse-BOS (REV).
We use songbirds as a model of vocal learning and brain plasticity to examine questions such as:
Why and how does the auditory cortex produce its own supply of estrogens?
Image of clustered neurons that synthesize estrogens (green) and the calcium-buffering protein parvalbumin (magenta) in the auditory cortex of zebra finches. (Ikeda et al., 2017)
Steroids, like estrogens and androgens, are produced within discrete neural circuits in the cortex of humans and songbirds. In songbirds, the estrogen-synthetic enzyme aromatase is expressed in both neuronal cell bodies and presynaptic boutons in the auditory cortex. Neuroestrogens can therefore influence behavior via local and acute actions within behavioral circuits. These actions are not well understood, in part because steroids have historically been associated with long-term events like puberty, seasonality, and sexual differentiation. Using a variety of methodological approaches we are testing the hypothesis that steroids act in a fast, localized manner very similar to neurotransmitters in the vertebrate nervous system.
We documented that the forebrain synthesizes estrogens during social encounters (Remage-Healey et al., 2008) in both males and females (Remage-Healey et al., 2012). More recently, we found that in females this is actually due to local synthesis of testosterone itself, the precursor to estrogens (de Bournonville et al., 2020). Therefore, somewhat unexpectedly, the male brain is making lots of the 'female hormone' estradiol, and the female brain in turn is making lots of the 'male hormone' testosterone!
What neural and endocrine events occur when young birds learn to sing?
What brain regions are important for song processing and song memory?
Using a task that asks the birds to teach themselves to learn new sounds, we found that blocking estrogen synthesis in the auditory cortex impairs their ability to associate new sounds with social rewards (Macedo-Lima and Remage-Healey, 2020). Therefore, in adulthood, learning complex sounds and their associations with natural consequences seems to depend on neuroestrogen signaling in the cortex.
What does the study of vocal learning in songbirds tell us about brain function in other
vocal learning species, like human beings?
Irregularly updated news
1/13/21: Katie Schroeder's latest findings have been published in Developmental Neurobiology! She shows that zebra finch nestlings have auditory neurons that can already process and store songs like adults!
4/03/20: Matheus Macedo-Lima successfully defended his dissertation today, via Zoom! Congratulations Dr. Macedo-Lima!!
3/12/20: Last in-person lab meeting for the foreseeable future. :( We are zooming from now until it is safe to meet in person again. Be well everybody!
2/27/20: Celebrating @BioMatheus 's new paper with the lab, per tradition. A bit o bubbly, snacks, official science festive wear, and.... The Dramatic Reading of the Methods. Great job Matheus!!!!
2/8/20: What a week! Catherine's paper was just accepted for publication, also in Hormones and Behavior. This work documents that the female brain can synthesize testosterone locally in response to social stimuli. Her careful approach identified the likely enzymatic pathway for the female brain to make testosterone and then convert this into neuroestrogens to regulate sensory processing. Felicitations!
2/6/20: On the heels of Dan's paper, Matheus' paper was just accepted for publication in Hormones and Behavior. This study shows that neuroestrogen synthesis is key for learning associations between new sounds and social reinforcers. It uses a clever, operant, smart-glass, python-driven, microcomputer-controlled, open-source paradigm that Matheus designed and will hopefully be used by many in the community. Congratulations Matheus!
2/5/20: Dan Vahaba's paper was just accepted for publication in Scientific Reports. This is a 'mammoth' study involving a plethora of techniques showing that neuroestrogen synthesis in developing male zebra finches are important for neural representations of song but not imitation accuracy. Congratulations Dan!
11/9/19: Amanda's paper (with Maaya, Tessa, and Era as co-authors) was just accepted for publication in the Journal of Comparative Physiology. Congratulations! This study documents that neuroestrogen synthesis is key to the immediate-early gene repsonse to song in the NCM of both male and female zebra finches.
9/19/19: It's postdoc appreciation week! When we finally get around to celebrating the oft-overlooked 'middle children' of research, postdocs. Pictured below are our two marvelous postdocs Jeremy and Marcela with some goodies courtesy of the lab snack fairy, goodies that they don't have to share with anyone else.
8/25/19: Our collaborative study with Jessica Caballero and David Moorman was just accepted at eNeuro! Garrett spearheaded the slice physiology experiments here to record PSCs in rat PFC neurons.
8/23/19: Jeremy just found out that his NIH F32 NRSA will be funded, for three years of fellowship support. Congratulations!
8/6/19: We had a fantastic student from Wheaton College, Anna Lally, join us for her summer internship, supervised by Marcela. Thank you for a great summer, Anna!
7/25-7/28/19: Marcela (talk), Katie (poster), and Amy (poster) presented their findings at the ABS meeting in Chicago.
7/5/19: Dan Pollak had a paper published in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. Check it out!
6/19-6/23/19: Luke (SBN Program Chair), Marcela (contributed talk), and Jeremy (poster) thoroughly enjoyed catching up with new science and colleagues at the SBN meeting in Bloomington IN.
4/19/19: Dan Pollak just defended his terrific senior honors thesis, with labmates, friends and family in attendance. Congratulations!
4/18/2019: Dan Vahaba just accepted a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Smith College. Congrats Dr. Professor Dan!
4/15/2019: Garrett Scarpa just agreed to start a PhD program at the Tufts Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences in the Fall. Congrats!
3/27/2019: Luke has won the Outstanding Research Award from the UMass College of Natural Sciences!
3/25/2019: A new summer intern, Anna Lally, will be joining the lab this summer as part of a scholarship internship through Wheaton College. She will be working with Marcela and others on their projects, and learning about how much fun a research lab is in the summer!
3/1/2019: Dan Pollak was awarded a Senior Student Fellowship from Backyard Brains! He will be spending 6 weeks this summer in Munich and Belgrade working on some exciting projects, and we are all jealous!
1/15/2019: Marcela was awarded a faculty research grant from the Healey Endowment Fund (no relation)! Congratluations!
12/7/2018: Dan Vahaba successfully defended his dissertation today. Congratulations Dr. Dan!!
11/18/2018: Our collaborative study with Nicole Gervais, Agnes Lacreuse and Jessica Mong was just accepted at J Neurosci! This is a wide-ranging study in the marmoset, a non-human primate. We report that treatment with an oral etrogen synthesis inhibitor (letrozole, commonly used in chemotherapy treatments) substantially compromises aspects of cognition, thermoregulation, estradiol levels, and excitability of hippocampal neurons. Two students in the lab, Dan Pollak and J. Rudi Starrett were instrumental in collecting and analyzing the whole cell patch clamp recordings in this study. A wonderful collaborative team, interesting data, and a great 'home' for this paper!
11/9/2018: Matheus and Luke attended the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. And after Matheus' marathon, non-stop poster poster presentation, we caught up with former lab-mates Dr. Amanda Krentzel (NC State) and Dr. Maaya Ikeda (UTSW) for dinner. Fun to catch up about new projects, both in science and in life!
10/04/2018: A team of labmates (Marcela, Dan, Matheus, Katie, and Jeremy) made the trek to Milbrook, NY for the 2018 Bird Song and Animal Communication Meeting, hosted by Erich Jarvis and colleagues at Rockefeller U.
10/02/2018: Come be our colleague! A new faculty opening in Behavioral Neuroscience here at UMass. More info can be found here.
9/25/2018: Christiane (Healey) just won the first Mahoney Teaching Award at UMass! Herzliche Glückwünsche!!
8/21/2018: The lab is excited to welcome Dr. Jeremy Spool, a new postdoctoral researcher, to our team!
7/14-17/2018: Matheus, Garrett, and Luke presented some of the lab's latest work at the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology meeting in Toronto Canada.
5/25/2018: Dan Pollak was awarded a Commonwealth College Honors Research Grant to support his senior honors thesis project. Congratulations!
4/20/2018: Rachel Frazier wowed the crowd at the PREP poster session with her exciting new data:
4/18/2018: Dan Vahaba took home this year's 'Golden Neuron Award' for the best new publication in the Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program. Congratulations Dan!
4/9/2018: Dan Pollak was awarded a @BackyardBrains Summer Fellowship! His project will focus on studying the biomechanics of mantis shrimp. Congrats, Dan!
4/2/2018: A new postdoctoral position is available in the lab! Read more here....
3/15/2018: Dan's review paper on neuroestrogens and song learning was accepted in Hormones and Behavior! It will be part of a Special Issue on "Fast Effects of Steroids" due out Summer 2018 that includes 20 other papers about this interesting topic. Guest Editors are Jacques Balthazart, Elena Choleris, and Luke Remage-Healey. Introductory commentary (and 50 years of history about this topic) can be found here.
3/6/2018: Marcela has published a co-authored paper with Claudio Mello and Christine Portfors on hummingbird ultrasonic vocalizations in Current Biology!
2/28/2018: Marcela has been awarded a grant from the Massachusetts Society of Professors to support her research. !Felicitaciones!
2/26/2018: Luke presented at the February edition SciTech Cafe in Northampton, MA.
1/22/2018: Our collaborative project on mouse cerebellar transmission and neuroestrogens is now in press at Endocrinology! This is an exciting set of findings combining patch clamp recordings and estrogen content measurements, led by the labs of Paul Mermelstein and Tim Ebner at Minnesota.
1/12/2018: Amanda, Matheus and Maaya had a paper on sex differences in auditory physiology and membrane estrogen actions accepted in Endocrinology!
12/14/2017: Dan Pollak was awarded a Commonwealth College Honors Research Grant for his work on auditory recordings. Congratulations!
11/22/2017: Our collaborative project on swamp sparrow learning and HVC response properties is now in press at Scientific Reports! This is the result of a longstanding collaboration between Luke, Dana Moseley (James Madison U), Jeff Podos (UMass), and Jonathan Prather (U Wyoming).
11/10-15/17: Amanda, Catherine, Matheus, Dan and Luke all presented posters at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, DC. Dan was also an official SfN blogger!
10/26/2017: Dan and Matheus had a paper on changes in auditory gain, coding and the rapid actions of estrogens across the song learning critical period accepted in eNeuro!
Dan in our official "lab publication celebration" getup, performing a dramatic reading excerpt from his paper.
10/6/2017: Vanessa, Matheus and Ben had a paper on norepinephrine actions in the auditory cortex accepted in the Journal of Neurophysiology!
9/6/2017: The lab welcomes Dr. Marcela Fernandez-Peters, a new postdoc and Visiting Assistant Professor in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
7/20/2017: Maaya, Amanda, Tessa and Garrett had a paper on aromatase clusters in the songbird forebrain accepted in the Journal of Comparative Neurology!
Amanda in our official "lab publication celebration" getup.
6/20/2017: Luke, Amanda, Matheus, and Dan had a policy review on the value of species diversity in biomedical research published by the new journal Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
6/15/2017: Catherine and her husband Simon welcomed their new daugther, Judith. Felicitations!
5/22/17: Amanda successfully defended her dissertation today on "Sex differences in estradiol signaling in the zebra finch auditory cortex". Congratulations Dr. Krentzel!
5/17/17: Luke presented some of the lab's work at the 11th Annual meeting of the OSSD in Montreal, Canada.
4/28/17: Luke presented some of the lab's work at Hofstra University's Department of Biology on Long Island.
4/26/17: Amanda won the 'Golden Neuron Award' for acheivement in the Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program. Congratulations Amanda!
1/31/17: Catherine has been selected for a 2017 Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Belgian American Educational Foundation. Felicitations!
12/20/16: The grant funding good news continues! Dan Vahaba was awarded a UMass Graduate School Dissertation Research Grant for his song learning project. Congratulations Dan!
12/16/16: Tessa Oliver and Daniel Pollak have each been awarded Commonwealth Honors College Research Assistant Fellowships for the Spring 2017 semester. Congratulations to both Tessa and Dan!
12/16/16: Olivia Li has been awarded a Commonwealth Honors College Research Grant to support her undergraduate senior honors thesis project on female preference behavior. She will be presenting the results of her project at the Massachusetts Statewide Undergraduate Research Conference to April 28, 2017. Congratulations Olivia!
11/11-16/16: Amanda, Catherine, Matheus and Luke all presented posters and talks at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, CA.
11/7/2016: Matheus had his first first-authored publication accepted for publication in Brain Behavior and Evolution. Congratulations!
09/23/2016: Luke presented some of the lab's work in a research seminar at Stonehill College.
08/24/2016: Matheus co-authored a recent paper on seasonal plasticity and neurogenesis with Rachel Cohen and Eliot Brenowitz in the Journal of Neuroscience. Congratulations!
08/05/2016: Maaya successfully defended her dissertation today on "The cellular context of estradiol regulation in the zebra finch brain". Congratulations Dr. Ikeda!
06/09/2016: Luke presented some of the lab's work as part of a symposium on the "Neuroendocrine control of vocalization" at the 2016 IBNS meeting in Budapest, Hungary.
05/26/2016: Amanda gave a great talk at the 2016 OSSD meeting in Philadelphia, on her work examining the sex differences in auditory coding the songbird brain.
05/13/2016: Catherine had her dissertation chapter accepted by Hormones and Behavior for her work in quail aromatase. Felicitations!
05/02/2016: Our collaborative study with Karyn Frick and Jen Tuscher on neuroestrogens in the mouse hippocampus just got accepted for publication in Hormones and Behavior!
04/26/2016: The lab welcomed high school student visitors from the Paolo Friere School in Holyoke MA to learn about neuroscience.
04/20/2016: Matheus won the innaugural 'Early Career Award' for acheivement in the first two years of study in the Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program. Congratulations Matheus!
02/29/2016: Amanda found out that she won a travel award for the 2016 OSSD meeting in Philadelphia. Congratulations Amanda!
01/04/2016: Dr. Catherine deBournonville joined the lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Welcome Catherine!
12/11/2015: Vanessa Lee successfully defended her Commonwealth College Senior Honors Thesis for her research project on norepinephrine regulation of audition. Congratulations Vanessa!
11/9/2015: Dan just found out that his major review on "Brain estrogen production and the encoding of recent experience" has been accepted for publication in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.
10/16/2015: Maaya, Dan, Amanda, and Vanessa each presented posters at the 2015 Annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Chicago. Dan's poster recieved media attention from the autism news outlet Spectrum!
Vanessa presenting her poster at the 2015 SfN FUN Social in Chicago, IL.
10/12/2015: Luke presented at the October edition of Northampton's Nerd Nite.
9/26/2015: Lab members participated in, and helped to host, the 15th Symposium put on by the UMass Center for Neuroendocrine Studies.
7/11/2015: Matheus and Luke presented some of the lab's work in a poster and a symposium talk at the 9th World Congress for the International Brain Research Organization in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
6/12/2015: Amanda and Dan presented some of their latest findings at the Annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, CA.
3/11/2015: Vanessa Lee has been accepted to join the Neuroscience Study Abroad Program (NSAP) in Salamanca, Spain for their summer 6-week course.
3/10/2015: Not strictly lab-related but still way cool: Luke's cousin Nora Healey took the gold medal in snowboarding slopestyle the Junior World Championships in Yabuli, China!
2/11/2015: The Endocrine Society has announced that Luke has won this year's Early Investigator Award!
1/20/2015: Amanda has just learned that her major review on "Sex differences and rapid estrogen signaling" was accepted for publication in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology!
12/12/2014: Vanessa Lee was awarded a UMass Commonwealth Honors College Research Assistant Fellowship for 2015. Congratulations Vanessa!
12/10/2014: Luke presented some of the lab's work at a departmental seminar in the Neuroscience Training Program at the University of Wisconsin.
12/08/2014: The lab's work was featured in the monthly gathering for public science enthusiasts at the OEB Science Cafe in Hadley, MA.
10/20/2014: Luke presented some of the lab's work at a departmental seminar in the Biology Department at Boston University.
10/14/2014: Ben had a paper accepted for publication by the IBRO journal Neuroscience on the role of an interface nucleus for neuroestrogen modulation of sensorimotor signals.
9/2/2014: Andrew, Ashley and Luke had a paper accepted for publication by Developmental Neurobiology on neuroestrogen fluctuations in juvenile songbirds.
8/30/2014: Maaya and Luke had a methods paper (co-authored by Michelle Rensel and Barney Schlinger of UCLA) accepted for publication by Cold Spring Harbor Protocols detailing a protocol for neurosteroid micordialysis.
8/25/2014: Matheus Lima joined the lab as a new graduate student in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program, supported by the LASPAU program Ciencia sem Fronteiras. Welcome!
5/23/2014: Tom Cao successfully defended his Commonwealth College Senior Honors Thesis for his research conducted in the lab. Congratulations Tom!
04/30/2014: Amanda was awarded a UMass Graduate School Dissertation Research Grant for her cell-signaling project. Congratulations Amanda!
2/26/2014: Luke presented some of the lab's work at a Colloquium for the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at Johns Hopkins University.
1/24/2014: Ify Arinze successfully defended her Senior Honors Thesis at Mount Holyoke College for her research conducted in the lab. Congratulations Ify!
1/23/2014: Our work was highlighted in the Winter edition of the live local arts and culture magazine, Amherst Live, by Oliver Broudy and Kathy Aidala.
11/10/2013: Luke presented some of the lab's work at a press conference associated with the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. The work was featured in outlets including the Los Angeles Times.
11/08/2013: Maaya and Luke presented a poster and a talk, along with collaborators at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and the Mechanisms of Communication Satellite Conference.
06/24/2013: Ben, Maaya, Dan, and Luke presented their recent results at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.
06/03/2013: Luke, David and Narendra had a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Neuroendocrinology that includes some recording results from their undergraduate projects.
05/08/2013: Maaya was awarded a UMass Graduate School Dissertation Research Grant for her norepinephrine project. Congratulations Maaya!
04/28/2013: David and Narendra each successfully defended their Senior Honors Theses at Amherst College for their research conducted in the lab!
04/18/2013: Laura Bernal-Corzo successfully defended her Commonwealth College Senior Honors Thesis for her research in the lab!
04/12/2013: Joseph "Rudi" has been accepted to the summer research fellowship program at UMass Med in Worcester, and David has been accepted as a summer intern at the American Cancer Society in Illinois. Congratulations!
04/08/2013: Daniel Vahaba won a 2013 Student Travel Award to this year's meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. Congrats Dan!
04/02/2013: Ben and his wife Andi welcome their new daughter, Audrey Leah Pawlisch. Congratulations!
02/18/2013: Luke presented some recent findings to the 7th International Congress on Steroids and the Nervous System in Torino, Italy.
12/17/2012: The FABBS press office has highlighted our work in a profile.
11/19/2012: Luke presented a 'Life Sciences Colloquium"at the Biological Sciences Department at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
10/26/2012: David won the best undergraduate poster award at the CNS Symposium 2012. Congrats David!
10/13/2012: Maaya presented her recent findings at the Annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting in New Orleans.
9/20/2012: Dr. Ben Pawlisch had his final dissertation chapter accepted by General and Comparative Endocrinology. Congratulations Ben!
8/31/2012: The Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology has announced that Luke has won this year's Frank A. Beach Award!
8/23/2012: Luke presented some of the lab's recent findings at his former graduate program, Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University.
5/21/2012: We welcomed colleagues from the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin, Madison for a Research Coordination Network meeting on Epigenetics and Behavior, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
3/01/2012: Dr. Ben Pawlisch joined the lab as a postdoc. Please welcome Ben, and feel free to ask him to get anything down from the top shelf.
2/10/2012: Luke presented some of the lab's work at his alma mater, Tufts University Department of Biology.
1/23/2012: Our recently accepted manuscript just got the cover of J Neurophysiol!
1/26/2012: Aaron Karp has won a Commonwealth Honors Research Grant for his project. Congrats Aaron!
The lab's codebase can be found on our github.
Here are a few pieces of code we have been finding useful lately:
A routine for quickly converting Igor patch clamp traces into Python-readable formats, and plotting them
A routine for converting Kilosort timestamps (sorted spikes) into python formats and plotting rasters, PSTHs, and firing rates
We engage in outreach events, engaging community members in our research with hands-on activities both in the lab and in local schools and community events.
The lab is accepting motivated students from all academic backgrounds.
For more information contact Dr. Remage-Healey at:
healey (at) cns (dot) umass (dot) edu
Morrill IVN 212, 639 North Pleasant St., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003