Sarah M. N. Woolley

Sarah M. N. Woolley

Research Interests

Ph.D., University of Washington, 1999

General Area of Research

Neural basis and behavior of social communication

Current Research

How perception in the context of social communication is accomplished in the brain 

Songbirds learn to recognize, respond to and produce the complex songs of other birds. They use their songs to communicate socially, in the contexts of mating and self advertisement. This makes them very interesting model systems for understanding how sensory signals are encoding and decoded by the brain and how that process results in perception and social communication. The lab is focused on four projects that address how the brain functions during song perception. 

First, auditory neurons in the songbird brain encode songs differently from other sounds. Their basic tuning properties appear to vary depending on the sounds that birds hear and they appear to be specialized for coding song. Using electrophysiology, anatomy and computational analysis techniques, we are studying the mechanisms of tuning plasticity in these sensory neurons, and how that plasticity is related to perception.

Second, we are interested in the co-evolution of vocal behavior and auditory perception. We use electrophysiology and behavioral analyses to understand how the auditory system differs functionally among songbird species with songs that differ in their acoustic composition. 

Third, we are interested in how experience shapes behavioral responses to song, and the neural encoding of songs and sound in general. We study this by manipulating the acoustic experience of young birds and adults and examining how the functioning of the auditory system and behavioral measures of perception and social interaction vary with experience. 

Fourth, we are interested in the salient acoustic aspects of songs for recognition and discrimination. We use the manipulation of the acoustic properties of songs and behavioral techniques to address this issue. 

Lab Research

The Woolley laboratory studies how auditory neurons, networks, and circuits extract information from vocal communication sounds in the service of social behavior, and the role of experience in auditory processing and behavior. We study songbirds because males sing to court females, females analyze songs to choose mates, the adults mate and raise offspring, and juveniles learn communication skills, all in the laboratory.

Importantly, songbirds are unique among non-human animals because juveniles learn to sing during a critical period by copying the songs of adult tutors via social interaction and practice. Songbird auditory neurons encode sound with exquisite accuracy and songbird auditory perceptual skills parallel those of humans.


Society for Neuroscience

Association for Research in Otolaryngology

International Society for Neuroethology

So NLT, Edwards JA, Woolley SMN. Auditory selectivity for spectral contrast in cortical neurons and behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society For Neuroscience. PMID 31826944 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1200-19.2019

Woolley, SC, Woolley, SMN. Integrating Form and Function in the Songbird Auditory Forebrain. Handbook on Auditory Research: The Neuroethology of Birdsong, Eds. Sakata, J., Woolley, SC, Fay, R.R., Popper, A.

Moore JM, Woolley SMN. Emergent tuning for learned vocalizations in auditory cortex. Nature Neuroscience. PMID 31406364 DOI: 10.1038/s41593-019-0458-4


Woolley, SMN. Early Experience and Auditory Development in Songbirds. In: Springer Handbook on Auditory Research: Auditory Development and Plasticity, Vol. 63. Eds. Cramer, K., Coffin, A., Fay, R.R., Popper, A.


Calabrese A, Woolley SM. Coding principles of the canonical cortical microcircuit in the avian brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112: 3517-22. PMID 25691736 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408545112


Schneider DM, Woolley SM. Sparse and background-invariant coding of vocalizations in auditory scenes. Neuron. 79: 141-52. PMID 23849201 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.04.038

Courses Taught

Selected Publications

Processing of modulated sounds in the zebra finch auditory midbrain: responses to noise, frequency sweeps and sinusoidal amplitude modulations

SMN Wooley
JH Casseday

Stimulus-dependent auditory tuning results in synchronous population coding of vocalizations in the songbird midbrain.

Sarah M. N. Woolley
Patrick R. Gill
Fre´de´ric E. Theunissen