A major research challenge in biomedicine and psychology is to work out the molecular and cellular processes that mediate long-term, experience-dependent changes in brain function. New techniques in genomics are revealing that natural experiences can trigger surprisingly complex and robust changes in gene expression in the brain. The general goal of Clayton’s research program is to understand the significance and function of these genomic changes, using a powerful animal model for high-order perception and cognition, the zebra finch. Zebra finches live in dense colonies and learn to recognize individuals through their vocalizations or “songs” (reviewed in Clayton et al., 2009). Young zebra finches learn to produce vocalizations through a process of song tutoring by one or more older birds. Studies over the last 20 years have shown that song playbacks and other social interactions trigger complex gene expression changes in the auditory forebrain. This changing genomic response to song has been documented using microarray technology (Dong et al., 2009; Drnevich et al., 2012), extended to include analysis of microRNAs (Gunaratne et al, 2011) and further replicated using RNAseq techniques. These findings motivated sequencing of the zebra finch genome by Clayton and a large international group of collaborators (Warren et al., 2010).
David F. Clayton is Professor of Neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, where he recently moved after 21 years at the University of Illinois in the US. He obtained his PhD with Prof. James E. Darnell Jr. (Rockefeller University, New York, NY) in 1985, and shortly after that launched the first investigations of how genes function in the brain of songbirds (working with Prof. Fernando Nottebohm, also at Rockefeller). Songbirds are a unique animal model of “neuroplasticity”, which encompasses learning and the ability of the brain to respond and adapt to environmental change, stress, and injury. Clayton’s work led to the first functional characterization of a gene now known to be central to Parkinson’s Disease (alpha-synuclein), and the discovery of genes that play an active role in vocal communication. In 2003, he organized a broad set of international collaborations which led to the complete sequencing of the songbird (zebra finch) genome. He moved to London in 2012 and assumed Headship of the new Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, aiming to strengthen the bridge between ethology (the study of natural behavior), neuroscience and human psychology. With more than 9500 citations and an H-index of 44 (Google Scholar), Clayton’s work continues to have influence over a wide range of fields, and has been featured in the popular press as well (New York Times, CBS Evening News, BBC News, NPR, among others). Clayton has been elected a Fellow of both the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science