Sensory and Working Memory Representations of Small and Large Numerosities in the Crow Endbrain.J Neurosci. 2016 11 23; 36(47):12044-12052.JN
Neurons in the avian nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), an endbrain structure that originated independently from the mammalian neocortex, process visual numerosities. To clarify the code for number in this anatomically distinct endbrain area in birds, neuronal responses to a broad range of numerosities were analyzed. We recorded single-neuron activity from the NCL of crows performing a delayed match-to-sample task with visual numerosities as discriminanda. The responses of >20% of randomly selected neurons were modulated significantly by numerosities ranging from one to 30 items. Numerosity-selective neurons showed bell-shaped tuning curves with one of the presented numerosities as preferred numerosity regardless of the physical appearance of the items. The resulting labeled-line code exhibited logarithmic compression obeying the Weber-Fechner law for magnitudes. Comparable proportions of selective neurons were found, not only during stimulus presentation, but also in the delay phase, indicating a dominant role of the NCL in numerical working memory. Both during sensory encoding and memorization of numerosities in working memory, NCL activity predicted the crows' number discrimination performance. These neuronal data reveal striking similarities across vertebrate taxa in their code for number despite convergently evolved and anatomically distinct endbrain structures.
Birds are known for their capabilities to process numerical quantity. However, birds lack a six-layered neocortex that enables primates with numerical competence. We aimed to decipher the neuronal code for numerical quantity in the independently and distinctly evolved endbrain of birds. We recorded the activity of neurons in an endbrain association area termed nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) from crows that assessed and briefly memorized numerosities from one to 30 dots. We report a neuronal code for sensory representation and working memory of numerosities in the crow NCL exhibiting several characteristics that are surprisingly similar to the ones found in primates. Our data suggest a common code for number in two different vertebrate taxa that has evolved based on convergent evolution.