Sarah Cushing WOOLLEY - Tokyo College
Tokyo College Professor

Sarah Cushing WOOLLEY

Other Affiliations McGill University Research interests Systems neuroscience, neuroethology, auditory processing, female preference, and songbirds Website Period of stay May 17, 2023 - July 8, 2023 
01 Description of Research

Vocal communication is a key component of social interactions across a diversity of species, including humans. My lab studies songbirds, vocal communicators that learn their songs from a parent or tutor, then, after a period of practice, use those songs to communicate. In the species we study, the zebra finch, only males learn to sing. However, females pay close attention to male songs and use them in individual recognition, mate choice, and the formation of long-lasting social bonds. We are interested in the dynamics of social interactions among birds, how different experiences, either during development or in adulthood, affect those interactions, and how neural circuits for learning and perceiving song shape and are shaped by those social interactions and experience.

More recently, my lab has moved beyond communication to study another behavior that is special in birds: flight. Birds are very agile fliers, capable of rapidly adjusting to wind and other changes in the environment. We are investigating the role of feathers in sensing changes to air currents and how that sensory information is represented in the brain. We are also working to uncover the sensory and motor circuits important for learning and performance of flight and how activity in these brain circuits changes with practice and experience.

In both of these projects, we aim to understand the way in which neural circuits integrate social, sensory, and motor information to produce precise and integral animal behaviors. Given the striking similarity between the neural circuits and processes in birds and mammals, these studies can lend insight into how experience can modulate circuit function in humans. For all of our research, we couple detailed behavioral analysis with a diverse range of neuroscience tools, including fMRI, electrophysiology, fiber photometry, and gene and protein expression. 

02 Short Biography

2017-             Associate Professor, Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, QC Canada

2010-2017    Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, QC Canada

2002-2010   Postdoctoral Researcher, University of California–San Francisco, San Francisco, CA USA                 

2002              PhD in Zoology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX USA            

1996               BSc in Biology, minor in Spanish, Duke University, Durham, NC USA

03 Publications and Other Research Activities

Research Publications

  1. Wall E and Woolley SC. 2023. Social experiences shape song preference learning independent of developmental exposure to song. BioRxiv


  1. Barr H, Wall E, and Woolley SC. 2021. Dopamine in the songbird auditory cortex shapes auditory preference. Current Biology. 31 (20), 4547-4559. e5


  1. Paul A, McClendon H, Rally V, Sakata JT, Woolley, SC. 2021. Behavioral discrimination and time-series phenotyping of birdsong performance. PLoS Comp Biology 17(4):e1008820.


  1. Barr H and Woolley SC. Developmental auditory experience shapes responses of catecholaminergic neurons to socially modulated song.  Scientific Reports 8(1)11717.


  1. Van Ruijssevelt L, Chen Y, von Eugen K, Hamaide J, De Groof G, Verhoye M, Güntürkün O, Woolley SC#, and Van der Linden A#. 2018. fMRI reveals a novel region for evaluating acoustic information for mate choice in a female songbird. Current Biology 28: 711-721.e6 # co-corresponding and co-last author


  1. Chen Y, Clark O and Woolley SC. Courtship song preferences in female zebra finches are shaped by developmental auditory experience. Proc. R. Soc. B 284: 20170054.


  1. Zengin-Toktas Y, and Woolley SC. Singing modulates parvalbumin neurons throughout forebrain vocal control circuitry. PLoS One 12.2:e0172944.


  1. Woolley SC. 2016. Social context differentially modulates activity of two interneuron populations in an avian basal ganglia nucleus. J. Neurophysiology 116(6):2831-2840.


  1. Schubloom HE and Woolley SC. 2016. Variation in social relationships relates to song preferences and EGR1 expression in a female songbird. Developmental Neurobiology 76:1029-1040.


  1. Woolley SC, Rajan R, Joshua M and Doupe AJ. 2014. Emergence of context-dependent variability across a basal ganglia network. Neuron 82:208-223. 


  1. Woolley SC and Doupe AJ. Social context-induced song variation affects female behavior and gene expression.  PLoS Biology 6:e62. 


  1. Woolley SC, O’Malley BW, Lydon J, and Crews D. Genotype differences in behavior and tyrosine hydroxylase expression between wild-type and progesterone receptor knockout mice.  Behavioral Brain Research 167:197-204.


  1. Woolley SC and Crews D. 2004. Species differences in the regulation of tyrosine hydroxylase in Cnemidophorus whiptail lizards. Journal of Neurobiology 60(3):360-368.


  1. Woolley SC, Sakata JT, and Crews D. 2004. Tyrosine hydroxylase expression is affected by sexual vigor and social environment in male Cnemidophorus inornatus. Journal of Comparative Neurology 476(4):429-439.


  1. Sakata JT, Woolley SC, Gupta A and Crews D. Differential effects of testosterone and progesterone on the activation and retention of courtship behavior in sexual and parthenogenetic whiptail lizards.  Hormones and Behavior 43(5):523-530.


  1. Rhen T, Sakata JT, Woolley SC, Porter R, and Crews D. 2003. Changes in androgen receptor mRNA expression in the forebrain and oviduct during the reproductive cycle of female leopard geckos, Eublepharis macularius. General and Comparative Endocrinology 132(1):133-141.


  1. Woolley SC, Sakata J, Gupta A, and Crews D. 2001. Evolutionary changes in dopaminergic modulation of courtship behavior in Cnemidophorus whiptail lizards. Hormones and Behavior 40(4):483-489.


Reviews and Previews

  1. Sakata JT, Woolley SC. The role of parvalbumin neurons in the evolution of skilled behaviours. PLoS Biology. 2022 Sep 21;20(9):e3001795.


  1. Sakata JT, Catalano I, Woolley SC. 2022. Mechanisms, development, and comparative perspectives on experience‐dependent plasticity in social behavior. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology 337: 35-49.


  1. Wall EM, Woolley SC. Motor Performance: Acetylcholine in action. Elife. 2020. 9:e57515.


  1. Woolley SC and Sakata JT. 2019. Mechanisms of species diversity in birdsong learning. PLoS Biology 17(12): e3000555.


  1. Woolley SC. Dopaminergic regulation of vocal-motor plasticity and performance. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 54, 127-133.


  1. Woolley SC and Kao MH. 2015. Variability in action: Contributions of a songbird cortical-basal ganglia circuit to vocal motor learning and control. Neuroscience 296:39-47.


  1. Woolley SC, Sakata JT, and Crews D. 2004. Evolutionary insights into the regulation of courtship behavior in male amphibians and reptiles. Physiology and Behavior 83(2):347-360.


  1. Woolley SC, Sakata JT, and Crews D. 2004. Tracing the evolution of brain and behavior using two related species of whiptail lizards: Cnemidophorus uniparens and Cnemidophorus inornatus. Journal of the Institute of Laboratory Animal Research 45(1):46-53.




The Neuroethology of Birdsong; Springer Handbook of Auditory Research. 2020. Sakata JT, Woolley SC, Popper AN and Fay RR (Eds.). 


Woolley SC and Woolley SMN.  2020. Auditory processing for social decision-making. Springer Handbook of Auditory Research. Sakata JT, Woolley SC, Popper AN, and Fay RR (Eds.).

Sakata JT and Woolley SC. 2020. Introduction to the Neuroethology of Birdsong. Springer Handbook of Auditory Research. Sakata JT, Woolley SC, Popper AN, and Fay RR (Eds.).