Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Crows quickly learn arbitrary associations. As a neuronal correlate of this behavior, single neurons in the corvid endbrain area nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) change their response properties during association learning. In crows performing a delayed association task that required them to map both familiar and novel sample pictures to the same two choice pictures, NCL neurons established a common, prospective code for associations. Here, we report that neuronal tuning changes during learning were not distributed equally in the recorded population of NCL neurons. Instead, such learning-related changes relied almost exclusively on neurons which were already encoding familiar associations. Only in such neurons did behavioral improvements during learning of novel associations coincide with increasing selectivity over the learning process. The size and direction of selectivity for familiar and newly learned associations were highly correlated. These increases in selectivity for novel associations occurred only late in the delay period. Moreover, NCL neurons discriminated correct from erroneous trial outcome based on feedback signals at the end of the trial, particularly in newly learned associations. Our results indicate that task-relevant changes during association learning are not distributed within the population of corvid NCL neurons but rather are restricted to a specific group of association-selective neurons. Such association neurons in the multimodal cognitive integration area NCL likely play an important role during highly flexible behavior in corvids.