Remembering Allison Doupe (1954-2014)

Neuroscientist Allison Doupe

Neuroscientist Allison Doupe (courtesy: UCSF Psychiatry).

Allison Doupe was one of those people who somehow seemed immortal. She blazed with brilliant curiosity and warmed those around her with kindness and humor. But the undeniable truth is that cancer can take any of us.

When I heard of the UCSF neuroscientist’s death in late October,  I was as shocked as though a beloved aunt had died, even though in truth I had only met her on a couple of occasions. I had always thought of Doupe as my “what-if” thesis advisor: If I had gone to grad school at UCSF, I would have jumped through fire to get into her lab.

Doupe pioneered the study of songbirds as a model for how the human brain learns language, and curiosity about language in the brain was what first propelled me into neuroscience. So when I interviewed at UCSF in 2007, I made sure she was on my schedule of professors to meet.

I walked into her office nervous and keen to make a good impression, but within minutes I felt like we were old friends. The initial scientific shop talk of a grad-school interview quickly veered into an excited and highly speculative discussion of how her research on the basal ganglia could explain why good habits are so hard to form and bad ones so hard to break.

The basal ganglia are a group of regions deep in the brain that act like an orchestra conductor for coordinated movement. Your brain may come up with all sorts of movement impulses from moment to moment, but it is the basal ganglia that let you put them in order.

I like to think my basal ganglia wake up later than the rest of my brain. Watch me drag myself around the kitchen in the morning, trying to figure out whether to pour the hot water first or grind the beans first, opening and closing cabinets, and staring blankly into the refrigerator, and you get a pretty good portrait of the basal ganglia in disarray.

The solution for sleepy basal ganglia, as Doupe explained on that day eight years ago, is to turn the morning routine into a habit. The basal ganglia excel at learning sequences of actions, given enough repetition. So, if I wanted to be able to make coffee with a modicum of coordination, I needed to give my basal ganglia an early morning workout. Start each day with the same foot out of bed, the same sequence of beans to the grinder, water to the pot, bread to the toaster, and plate to the table, and you’ll soon be enjoying breakfast before you’re even quite awake.

My conversation in Doupe’s office had already dragged on too long, and I was probably getting late for something or other, but Doupe wouldn’t let me go until we had dropped into her lab to see her birds. Not that I struggled much. I already thought birdsong was among the coolest of neuroscience fields.

A pair of male and female zebra finches (courtesy: Keith Gerstung | Wikimedia Commons).

Like human infants learning to speak, young male songbirds learn their songs from their fathers during a “critical period” much like the one that means you’re out of luck if you want to learn to speak French like a native after about the age of 12. As a result of this cultural transmission, songbirds even develop regional dialects.

Doupe had been curious about how humans learn language since she was a little girl growing up in bilingual Montreal. In the 1980s, she decided to pursue this interest by studying vocal learning in songbirds. As a postdoc at Cal Tech and then a young professor at UCSF, Doupe discovered how the avian version of the basal ganglia allows young birds to learn and mimic their father’s song. She brought together bird biologists and human linguists to turn birdsong into a major model system for neuroscientists studying the brain mechanisms behind human language.

Thanks to her work, neuroscientists now understand that both language and birdsong rely on the basal ganglia to sequence syllables of sound into larger, sense-filled units. Birds have notes and motifs, humans have words and sentences. But the brain structure that puts the sounds in the right order is much the same.

After our interview, Doupe led me on an amiable whirlwind tour of her lab, which included an introduction to the whistling and squeaking zebra finches lining the walls in large cages. When I finally had to rush off to my next appointment, she said we should keep in touch.

I didn’t end up going to UCSF, but I avidly followed Doupe’s research. The last time I talked with her was in 2012, when she visited Stanford to give a seminar about her latest research. Some friends and I had recently organized a science writing group called NeuWriteWest, and we wanted to start a podcast featuring interviews with our weekly speakers. As the first seminar speaker of the season, Doupe kindly agreed to be the very first guinea pig for our NeuroTalk podcast.

Despite some technical fumbling on our end, Doupe was funny and charming as always, and the podcast remained our most popular for years:

I’m sorry that I never had the chance to work with Doupe not because she was such an amazing scientist, but because she seemed like she would have been a great mentor and a friend. She was the kind of person who could get you completely caught up in her enthusiastic love of the minutia of bird neuroanatomy. She was a true pioneer and, by all accounts, a fierce advocate for her students. The neuroscience community will miss her.

To learn more about Doupe’s career and research into birdsong and its connections to human language, read the obituary published in Nature by colleagues Thomas Insel and Story Landis or watch this 2011 lecture she gave at Stony Brook University.

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