Erich Jarvis, Ph.D.

Photo of Erich Jarvis

Phone: 919-681-1680

401E Bryan Research Bldg.
Box 3209
Durham, NC 27710

Email: jarvis AT neuro DOT duke DOT edu

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Associate Professor; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

Neurobiology, School of Medicine

DIBS Faculty

Research Description

Our goal is to understanding the molecular mechanisms that construct, modify, and maintain neural circuits for vocal learning. Vocal learning is the ability to modify or imitate the acoustic structure and sequence of vocalizations and is a critical behavioral substrate for spoken language. Studying these mechanisms requires that we compare the genes, vocal behavior, and associated brain pathways of the few rare groups that have vocal learning with the vast majority of species that do not. Vocal learners include at least three groups of distantly related mammals (humans, cetaceans, and bats) and three groups of distantly related birds (parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds). Vocal non-learners include non-human primates, cats, suboscine songbirds, pigeons, and chickens, to name a few. Remarkably, although vocal learners are distantly related to each other, of those whose brains have been studied (humans, parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds), the results suggest that they share a similar vocal pathway organization: a premotor or anterior vocal pathway necessary for vocal learning and a motor or posterior vocal pathway necessary for production of learned vocalizations. These forebrain pathways are not found in vocal non-learners. Yet, vocal non-learners possess similar brain pathways for learning and production of other motor behaviors. We hypothesize that the fundamental difference between vocal learners and non-learners is a genetic difference(s) that controls the connections of forebrain motor learning pathways onto brainstem motor neurons that normally control production of innate behaviors. Once a vocal learning circuit is established, we believe that it uses the same molecular mechanisms to perform its functions as motor circuits adjacent to it. Thus, we seek to determine the basic mechanisms of vocal learning that are shared across species and conserved over evolution within a broad framework of brain mechanisms of motor learning.


Postdoc, The Rockefeller University, Molecular Neurobiology & Animal Behavior, 1995-1998

Ph.D., The Rockefeller University, Molecular Neurobiology & Animal Behavior, 1995

B.A., Hunter College, Biology & Mathematics, 1988

Recent Publications

Feenders G, Liedvogel M, Rivas MV, Zapka M, Horita H, Hara E, Wada K, Mouritsen H, Jarvis ED. Molecular mapping of movement-associated areas in the avian brain: A Motor theory for vocal learning origin. (2008) PLoS ONE 3(3): e1768, 1-27.

Wada K, Howard JT, McConnell P, Lints T, Rivas MV, Whitney O, Horita H, Patterson MA, White SA, Scharff C, Heasler S, Zhao S, Sakaguchi H, Hagiwara M, Shiraki T, Hirozane-Kishikawa T, Skene P, Hayashizaki Y, Carninci P, Jarvis ED. A molecular neuroethological approach for identifying and characterizing a cascade of behaviorally regulated genes. (2006) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 103:15212-15217.

Smith VA, Yu J, Smulders TV, Hartemink AJ, Jarvis ED. Computational inference of neural information flow networks. (2006) PLoS Comp. Biol. 2:1436-1449.

Research Areas

Research Topics

  • Origin and Mechanisms of Language
  • Neuroethology
  • Systems Neurobiology