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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Fernando Nottebohm
Fernando Nottebohm, Ph.D.
Dorothea L. Leonhardt Professor
Laboratory of Animal Behavior

Dr. Nottebohm is interested in the origin and evolution of ideas, and he examines the genesis of concepts as a biological process. He holds that a full understanding of a phenomenon requires that we know its origins and evolution, and this holds true for matter, space, time, people, life, the universe, gods, and science.

The Nottebohm laboratory has worked on the basic biology of vocal learning in birds. This research described the stages of vocal learning and the underlying circuitry, which was found to include anatomically discreet nuclei that seem to have no function other than their involvement in the acquisition and production of learned song. Several of these nuclei are larger in males, which do most of the singing, than in females. Furthermore, in males the size of these nuclei changes seasonally, a finding which led to the discovery that in some of these nuclei there is a constant production and replacement of the very cells whose circuits encode the learned song and that this replacement peaks at times of peak memory load.

The discovery of this phenomenon in songbirds has led to a rethinking of the elements that set limits on how much can be learned: the replacement of seemingly healthy neurons suggests that long-term memory involves not just changes in synaptic efficacy and number, but also in nuclear events, such as presumed changes in DNA expression, that lend permanence to a cell’s performance in a circuit. Such permanent changes would, however, use up memory space, thus setting the need for periodic replacement. Conceived in this manner, the economy of brain circuits emerges as a key principle of brain function and suggests that neuronal replacement can also be thought of as a process of brain rejuvenation.

In recent years, Dr. Nottebohm has switched his attention from hands-on experimental work to an ambitious review of the genesis of key ideas in science, as well as in philosophy and religion. His work treats the phenomenon of culture formation as a biological process, with laws of its own and emergent patterns and paradoxes. His focus is on big questions, including the origins of people, of life, of the universe, and of God. Dr. Nottebohm argues this constitutes a legitimate scientific challenge—to understand how some of the thoughts and beliefs at the center of our culture came to be and the rhythm and rules of their creation and modification.


B.A. in zoology, 1962
Ph.D. in zoology, 1966
University of California, Berkeley


Assistant Professor, 1967–1971
Associate Professor, 1971–1976
Professor, 1976–
Director, Field Research Center for Ethology and Ecology, 1981–
The Rockefeller University


Charles A. Dana Award, 1992

McKnight Foundation Senior Investigator Award, 1997

Fondation IPSEN Prize in Neuronal Plasticity, 1999

Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, 2004

Karl Spencer Lashley Award, American Philosophical Society, 2005

Benjamin Franklin Medal, 2006

Mortimer D. Sackler, M.D., Prize, 2011


National Academy of Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Philosophical Society
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science


Walton, C. et al. The zebra finch paradox: song is little changed, but number of neurons doubles. J. Neurosci. 32, 761–774 (2012).

Agate, R.J. et al. Transgenic songbirds offer an opportunity to develop a genetic model for vocal learning. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 17963–17967 (2009).

Adar, E. et al. The relationship between nature of social change, age, and position of new neurons and their survival in adult zebra finch brain. J. Neurosci. 28, 5394–5400 (2008).

Liu, W.C. and Nottebohm, F. A learning program that ensures prompt and versatile vocal imitation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 104, 20398–20403 (2007).

Wilbrecht, L. et al. High levels of new neuron addition persist when the sensitive period for song learning is experimentally prolonged. J. Neurosci. 26, 9135–9141 (2006).

Dr. Nottebohm is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.