Space-specific neurons in the barn owl’s auditory space map gain spatial selectivity through tuning to combinations of the interaural time difference (ITD) and interaural level difference (ILD). The combination of ITD and ILD in the subthreshold responses of space-specific neurons in the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICx) is well described by a multiplication of ITD- and ILD-dependent components. It is unknown, however, how ITD and ILD are combined at the site of ITD and ILD convergence in the lateral shell of the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICcl) and therefore whether ICx is the first site in the auditory pathway where multiplicative tuning to ITD-and ILD-dependent signals occurs. We used extracellular re-cording of single neurons to determine how ITD and ILD are combined in ICcl of the anesthetized barn owl (Tyto alba). A comparison of additive, multiplicative, and linear-threshold models of neural responses shows that ITD and ILD are combined nonlinearly in ICcl, but the interaction of ITD and ILD is not uniformly multiplicative over the sample. A subset (61%) of the neural responses is well described by the multiplicative model, indicating that ICcl is the first site where multiplicative tuning to ITD- and ILD-dependent signals occurs. ICx, however, is the first site where multiplicative tuning is observed consistently. A network model shows that a linear combination of ICcl responses to ITD–ILD pairs is sufficient to produce the multiplicative subthreshold responses to ITD and ILD seen in ICx.
The barn owl is a well-known model system for studying auditory processing and sound localization. This article reviews the morphological and functional organization, as well as the role of the underlying microcircuits, of the barn owl's inferior colliculus (IC). We focus on the processing of frequency and interaural time (ITD) and level differences (ILD). We first summarize the morphology of the sub-nuclei belonging to the IC and their differentiation by antero- and retrograde labeling and by staining with various antibodies. We then focus on the response properties of neurons in the three major sub-nuclei of IC [core of the central nucleus of the IC (ICCc), lateral shell of the central nucleus of the IC (ICCls), and the external nucleus of the IC (ICX)]. ICCc projects to ICCls, which in turn sends its information to ICX. The responses of neurons in ICCc are sensitive to changes in ITD but not to changes in ILD. The distribution of ITD sensitivity with frequency in ICCc can only partly be explained by optimal coding. We continue with the tuning properties of ICCls neurons, the first station in the midbrain where the ITD and ILD pathways merge after they have split at the level of the cochlear nucleus. The ICCc and ICCls share similar ITD and frequency tuning. By contrast, ICCls shows sigmoidal ILD tuning which is absent in ICCc. Both ICCc and ICCls project to the forebrain, and ICCls also projects to ICX, where space-specific neurons are found. Space-specific neurons exhibit side peak suppression in ITD tuning, bell-shaped ILD tuning, and are broadly tuned to frequency. These neurons respond only to restricted positions of auditory space and form a map of two-dimensional auditory space. Finally, we briefly review major IC features, including multiplication-like computations, correlates of echo suppression, plasticity, and adaptation.
sound localization; central nucleus of the inferior colliculus; auditory; plasticity; adaptation; interaural time difference; interaural level difference; frequency tuning
Spatial receptive fields of neurons in the auditory pathway of the barn owl result from the sensitivity to combinations of interaural time (ITD) and level differences across stimulus frequency. Both the forebrain and tectum of the owl contain such neurons. The neural pathways, which lead to the forebrain and tectal representations of auditory space, separate before the midbrain map of auditory space is synthesized. The first nuclei that belong exclusively to either the forebrain or the tectal pathways are the nucleus ovoidalis (Ov) and the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICx), respectively. Both receive projections from the lateral shell subdivision of the inferior colliculus but are not interconnected. Previous studies indicate that the owl’s tectal representation of auditory space is different from those found in the owl’s forebrain and the mammalian brain. We addressed the question of whether the computation of spatial cues in both pathways is the same by comparing the ITD tuning of Ov and ICx neurons. Unlike in ICx, the relationship between frequency and ITD tuning had not been studied in single Ov units. In contrast to the conspicuous frequency independent ITD tuning of space-specific neurons of ICx, ITD selectivity varied with frequency in Ov. We also observed that the spatially tuned neurons of Ov respond to lower frequencies and are more broadly tuned to ITD than in ICx. Thus there are differences in the integration of frequency and ITD in the two sound-localization pathways. Thalamic neurons integrate spatial information not only within a broader frequency band but also across ITD channels.
Electrophysiological studies on duration-tuned neurons (DTNs) from the mammalian auditory midbrain have typically evoked spiking responses from these cells using monaural or free-field acoustic stimulation focused on the contralateral ear, with fewer studies devoted to examining the electrophysiological properties of duration tuning using binaural stimulation. Because the inferior colliculus (IC) receives convergent inputs from lower brainstem auditory nuclei that process sounds from each ear, many midbrain neurons have responses shaped by binaural interactions and are selective to binaural cues important for sound localization. In this study, we used dichotic stimulation to vary interaural level difference (ILD) and interaural time difference (ITD) acoustic cues and explore the binaural interactions and response properties of DTNs and non-DTNs from the IC of the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Our results reveal that both DTNs and non-DTNs can have responses selective to binaural stimulation, with a majority of IC neurons showing some type of ILD selectivity, fewer cells showing ITD selectivity, and a number of neurons showing both ILD and ITD selectivity. This study provides the first demonstration that the temporally selective responses of DTNs from the vertebrate auditory midbrain can be selective to binaural cues used for sound localization in addition to having spiking responses that are selective for stimulus frequency, amplitude, and duration.
auditory neurophysiology; binaural hearing; dichotic stimulation; Eptesicus fuscus; sound localization
Interaural time difference (ITD) is a cue to the location of sounds containing low frequencies and is represented in the inferior colliculus (IC) by cells that respond maximally at a particular best delay (BD). Previous studies have demonstrated that single ITD-sensitive cells contain sufficient information in their discharge patterns to account for ITD acuity on the midline (ITD = 0). If ITD discrimination were based on the activity of the most sensitive cell available (“lower envelope hypothesis”), then ITD acuity should be relatively constant as a function of ITD. In response to broadband noise, however, the ITD acuity of human listeners degrades as ITD increases. To account for these results, we hypothesize that pooling of information across neurons is an essential component of ITD discrimination. This report describes a neural pooling model of ITD discrimination based on the response properties of ITD-sensitive cells in the IC of anesthetized cats.
Rate versus ITD curves were fit with a cross-correlation model of ITD sensitivity, and the parameters were used to constrain a population model of ITD discrimination. The model accurately predicts ITD acuity as a function of ITD for broadband noise stimuli when responses are pooled across best frequency (BF). Furthermore, ITD tuning based solely on a system of internal delays is not sufficient to predict ITD acuity in response to 500 Hz tones, suggesting that acuity is likely refined by additional mechanisms. The physiological data confirms evidence from the guinea pig that BD varies systematically with BF, generalizing the observation across species.
auditory; binaural; hearing; inferior colliculus; localization; psychophysics
Interaural time differences (ITDs) are the dominant cue for the localization of low-frequency sounds. While much is known about the processing of ITDs in the auditory brainstem and midbrain, there have been relatively few studies of ITD processing in auditory cortex. In this study, we compared the neural representation of ITDs in the inferior colliculus (IC) and primary auditory cortex (A1) of gerbils. Our IC results were largely consistent with previous studies, with most cells responding maximally to ITDs that correspond to the contralateral edge of the physiological range. In A1, however, we found that preferred ITDs were distributed evenly throughout the physiological range without any contralateral bias. This difference in the distribution of preferred ITDs in IC and A1 had a major impact on the coding of ITDs at the population level: while a labeled-line decoder that considered the tuning of individual cells performed well on both IC and A1 responses, a two-channel decoder based on the overall activity in each hemisphere performed poorly on A1 responses relative to either labeled-line decoding of A1 responses or two-channel decoding of IC responses. These results suggest that the neural representation of ITDs in gerbils is transformed from IC to A1 and have important implications for how spatial location may be combined with other acoustic features for the analysis of complex auditory scenes.
auditory cortex; inferior colliculus; interaural time differences; population coding; spatial hearing
When sound arrives at the eardrum it has already been filtered by the body, head, and outer ear. This process is mathematically described by the head-related transfer functions (HRTFs), which are characteristic for the spatial position of a sound source and for the individual ear. HRTFs in the barn owl (Tyto alba) are also shaped by the facial ruff, a specialization that alters interaural time differences (ITD), interaural intensity differences (ILD), and the frequency spectrum of the incoming sound to improve sound localization. Here we created novel stimuli to simulate the removal of the barn owl's ruff in a virtual acoustic environment, thus creating a situation similar to passive listening in other animals, and used these stimuli in behavioral tests.
HRTFs were recorded from an owl before and after removal of the ruff feathers. Normal and ruff-removed conditions were created by filtering broadband noise with the HRTFs. Under normal virtual conditions, no differences in azimuthal head-turning behavior between individualized and non-individualized HRTFs were observed. The owls were able to respond differently to stimuli from the back than to stimuli from the front having the same ITD. By contrast, such a discrimination was not possible after the virtual removal of the ruff. Elevational head-turn angles were (slightly) smaller with non-individualized than with individualized HRTFs. The removal of the ruff resulted in a large decrease in elevational head-turning amplitudes.
The facial ruff a) improves azimuthal sound localization by increasing the ITD range and b) improves elevational sound localization in the frontal field by introducing a shift of iso–ILD lines out of the midsagittal plane, which causes ILDs to increase with increasing stimulus elevation. The changes at the behavioral level could be related to the changes in the binaural physical parameters that occurred after the virtual removal of the ruff. These data provide new insights into the function of external hearing structures and open up the possibility to apply the results on autonomous agents, creation of virtual auditory environments for humans, or in hearing aids.
Although the ferret has become an important model species for studying both fundamental and clinical aspects of spatial hearing, previous behavioral work has focused on studies of sound localization and spatial release from masking in the free field. This makes it difficult to tease apart the role played by different spatial cues. In humans and other species, interaural time differences (ITDs) and interaural level differences (ILDs) play a critical role in sound localization in the azimuthal plane and also facilitate sound source separation in noisy environments. In this study, we used a range of broadband noise stimuli presented via customized earphones to measure ITD and ILD sensitivity in the ferret. Our behavioral data show that ferrets are extremely sensitive to changes in either binaural cue, with levels of performance approximating that found in humans. The measured thresholds were relatively stable despite extensive and prolonged (>16 weeks) testing on ITD and ILD tasks with broadband stimuli. For both cues, sensitivity was reduced at shorter durations. In addition, subtle effects of changing the stimulus envelope were observed on ITD, but not ILD, thresholds. Sensitivity to these cues also differed in other ways. Whereas ILD sensitivity was unaffected by changes in average binaural level or interaural correlation, the same manipulations produced much larger effects on ITD sensitivity, with thresholds declining when either of these parameters was reduced. The binaural sensitivity measured in this study can largely account for the ability of ferrets to localize broadband stimuli in the azimuthal plane. Our results are also broadly consistent with data from humans and confirm the ferret as an excellent experimental model for studying spatial hearing.
sound localization; spatial hearing; psychometric function; interaural time difference; interaural level difference; azimuth
A major cue for the position of a high-frequency sound source in azimuth is the difference in sound pressure levels in the two ears, Interaural Level Differences (ILDs), as a sound is presented from different positions around the head. This study aims to use data classification techniques to build a descriptive model of electro-physiologically determined neuronal sensitivity functions for ILDs. The ILDs were recorded from neurons in the central nucleus of the Inferior Colliculus (ICc), an obligatory midbrain auditory relay nucleus. The majority of ICc neurons (~ 85%) show sensitivity to ILDs but with a variety of different forms that are often difficult to unambiguously separate into different information-bearing types. Thus, this division is often based on laboratory-specific and relatively subjective criteria. Given the subjectivity and non-uniformity of ILD classification methods in use, we examined if objective data classification techniques for this purpose. Our key objectives were to determine if we could find an analytical method (A) to validate the presence of four typical ILD sensitivity functions as is commonly assumed in the field, and (B) whether this method produced classifications that mapped on to the physiologically observed results.
The three-step data classification procedure forms the basic methodology of this manuscript. In this three-step procedure, several data normalization techniques were first tested to select a suitable normalization technique to our data. This was then followed by PCA to reduce data dimensionality without losing the core characteristics of the data. Finally Cluster Analysis technique was applied to determine the number of clustered data with the aid of the CCC and Inconsistency Coefficient values.
The outcome of a three-step analytical data classification process was the identification of seven distinctive forms of ILD functions. These seven ILD function classes were found to map to the four “known” ideal ILD sensitivity function types, namely: Sigmoidal-EI, Sigmoidal-IE, Peaked, and Insensitive, ILD functions, and variations within these classes. This indicates that these seven templates can be utilized in future modelling studies.
We developed a taxonomy of ILD sensitivity functions using a methodological data classification approach. The number and types of generic ILD function patterns found with this method mapped well on to our electrophysiologically determined ILD sensitivity functions. While a larger data set of the latter functions may bring a more robust outcome, this good mapping is encouraging in providing a principled method for classifying such data sets, and could be well extended to other such neuronal sensitivity functions, such as contrast tuning in vision.
A recurring theme in theoretical work is that integration over populations of similarly tuned neurons can reduce neural noise. However, there are relatively few demonstrations of an explicit noise reduction mechanism in a neural network. Here we demonstrate that the brainstem of the barn owl includes a stage of processing apparently devoted to increasing the signal-to-noise ratio in the encoding of the interaural time difference (ITD), one of two primary binaural cues used to compute the position of a sound source in space. In the barn owl, the ITD is processed in a dedicated neural pathway that terminates at the core of the inferior colliculus (ICcc). The actual locus of the computation of the ITD is before ICcc in the nucleus laminaris (NL), and ICcc receives no inputs carrying information that did not originate in NL. Unlike in NL, the rate-ITD functions of ICcc neurons require as little as a single stimulus presentation per ITD to show coherent ITD tuning. ICcc neurons also displayed a greater dynamic range with a maximal difference in ITD response rates approximately double that seen in NL. These results indicate that ICcc neurons perform a computation functionally analogous to averaging across a population of similarly tuned NL neurons.
interaural time difference; sound localization; inferior colliculus; nucleus laminaris; barn owl; pooling
Bilateral cochlear implant (CI) users perform poorly on tasks involving interaural time differences (ITD), which are critical for sound localization and speech reception in noise by normal-hearing listeners. ITD perception with bilateral CI is influenced by age at onset of deafness and duration of deafness. We previously showed that ITD coding in the auditory midbrain is degraded in congenitally deaf white cats (DWC) compared to acutely deafened cats (ADC) with normal auditory development (Hancock et al., J. Neurosci, 30:14068). To determine the relative importance of early onset of deafness and prolonged duration of deafness for abnormal ITD coding in DWC, we recorded from single units in the inferior colliculus of cats deafened as adults 6 months prior to experimentation (long-term deafened cats, LTDC) and compared neural ITD coding between the three deafness models. The incidence of ITD-sensitive neurons was similar in both groups with normal auditory development (LTDC and ADC), but significantly diminished in DWC. In contrast, both groups that experienced prolonged deafness (LTDC and DWC) had broad distributions of best ITDs around the midline, unlike the more focused distributions biased toward contralateral-leading ITDs present in both ADC and normal-hearing animals. The lack of contralateral bias in LTDC and DWC results in reduced sensitivity to changes in ITD within the natural range. The finding that early onset of deafness more severely degrades neural ITD coding than prolonged duration of deafness argues for the importance of fitting deaf children with sound processors that provide reliable ITD cues at an early age.
binaural hearing; congenital deafness; inferior colliculus; cochlear implants; ITD
In the brainstem, the auditory system diverges into two pathways that process different sound localization cues, interaural time differences (ITDs) and level differences (ILDs). We investigated the site where ILD is detected in the auditory system of barn owls, the posterior part of the lateral lemniscus (LLDp). This structure is equivalent to the lateral superior olive in mammals. The LLDp is unique in that it is the first place of binaural convergence in the brainstem where monaural excitatory and inhibitory inputs converge. Using binaurally uncorrelated noise and a generalized linear model, we were able to estimate the spectrotemporal tuning of excitatory and inhibitory inputs to these cells. We show that the response of LLDp neurons is highly locked to the stimulus envelope. Our data demonstrate that spectrotemporally tuned, temporally delayed inhibition enhances the reliability of envelope locking by modulating the gain of LLDp neurons' responses. The dependence of gain modulation on ILD shown here constitutes a means for space-dependent coding of stimulus identity by the initial stages of the auditory pathway.
Animals, including humans, use interaural time differences (ITDs) that arise from different sound path lengths to the two ears as a cue of horizontal sound source location. The nature of the neural code for ITD is still controversial. Current models differentiate between two population codes: either a map-like rate-place code of ITD along an array of neurons, consistent with a large body of data in the barn owl, or a population rate code, consistent with data from small mammals. Recently, it was proposed that these different codes reflect optimal coding strategies that depend on head size and sound frequency. The chicken makes an excellent test case of this proposal because its physical pre-requisites are similar to small mammals, yet it shares a more recent common ancestry with the owl. We show here that, like in the barn owl, the brainstem nucleus laminaris in mature chickens displayed the major features of a place code of ITD. ITD was topographically represented in the maximal responses of neurons along each isofrequency band, covering approximately the contralateral acoustic hemisphere. Furthermore, the represented ITD range appeared to change with frequency, consistent with a pressure gradient receiver mechanism in the avian middle ear. At very low frequencies, below400 Hz, maximal neural responses were symmetrically distributed around zero ITD and it remained unclear whether there was a topographic representation. These findings do not agree with the above predictions for optimal coding and thus revive the discussion as to what determines the neural coding strategies for ITDs.
Auditory; Hearing; Sound localization; Sensory
In reverberant environments, acoustic reflections interfere with the direct sound arriving at a listener’s ears, distorting the binaural cues for sound localization. We investigated the effects of reverberation on the directional sensitivity of single neurons in the inferior colliculus (IC) of unanesthetized rabbits. We find that reverberation degrades the directional sensitivity of single neurons, although the amount of degradation depends on the characteristic frequency (CF) and the type of binaural cues available. When interaural time differences (ITD) are the only available directional cue, low-CF cells sensitive to ITD in the waveform fine time structure maintain better directional sensitivity in reverberation than high-CF cells sensitive to ITD in the envelope induced by cochlear filtering. On the other hand, when both ITD and interaural level difference (ILD) cues are available, directional sensitivity in reverberation is comparable throughout the tonotopic axis of the IC. This result suggests that, at high frequencies, ILDs provide better directional information than envelope ITDs, emphasizing the importance of the ILD-processing pathway for sound localization in reverberation.
directional sensitivity; interaural level difference; inferior colliculus; interaural time difference; reverberation; sound localization
Human bilateral cochlear implant users do poorly on tasks involving interaural time differences (ITD), a cue which provides important benefits to the normal hearing, especially in challenging acoustic environments. Yet the precision of neural ITD coding in acutely-deafened, bilaterally-implanted cats is essentially normal (Smith and Delgutte, J. Neurosci. 27:6740–6750). One explanation for this discrepancy is that the extended periods of binaural deprivation typically experienced by cochlear implant users degrades neural ITD sensitivity, either by impeding normal maturation of the neural circuitry or by altering it later in life. To test this hypothesis, we recorded from single units in inferior colliculus (IC) of two groups of bilaterally-implanted, anesthetized cats that contrast maximally in binaural experience: acutely-deafened cats, which had normal binaural hearing until experimentation, and congenitally deaf white cats, which received no auditory inputs until the experiment. Rate responses of only half as many neurons showed significant ITD sensitivity to low-rate pulse trains in congenitally deaf cats compared to acutely deafened cats. For neurons that were ITD sensitive, ITD tuning was broader and best ITDs were more variable in congenitally deaf cats, leading to poorer ITD coding within the naturally-occurring range. A signal detection model constrained by the observed physiology supports the idea that the degraded neural ITD coding resulting from deprivation of binaural experience contributes to poor ITD discrimination by human implantees.
binaural hearing; electric stimulation; congenital deafness; cochlear implant; inferior colliculus; ITD
For over a century, the duplex theory has guided our understanding of human sound localization in the horizontal plane. According to this theory, the auditory system uses interaural time differences (ITDs) and interaural level differences (ILDs) to localize low-frequency and high-frequency sounds, respectively. Whilst this theory successfully accounts for the localization of tones by humans, some species show very different behaviour. Ferrets are widely used for studying both clinical and fundamental aspects of spatial hearing, but it is not known whether the duplex theory applies to this species or, if so, to what extent the frequency range over which each binaural cue is used depends on acoustical or neurophysiological factors. To address these issues, we trained ferrets to lateralize tones presented over earphones and found that the frequency dependence of ITD and ILD sensitivity broadly paralleled that observed in humans. Compared with humans, however, the transition between ITD and ILD sensitivity was shifted toward higher frequencies. We found that the frequency dependence of ITD sensitivity in ferrets can partially be accounted for by acoustical factors, although neurophysiological mechanisms are also likely to be involved. Moreover, we show that binaural cue sensitivity can be shaped by experience, as training ferrets on a 1-kHz ILD task resulted in significant improvements in thresholds that were specific to the trained cue and frequency. Our results provide new insights into the factors limiting the use of different sound localization cues and highlight the importance of sensory experience in shaping the underlying neural mechanisms.
auditory localization; interaural level difference; interaural time difference; phase ambiguity; spatial hearing; training
Performing sound recognition is a task that requires an encoding of the time-varying spectral structure of the auditory stimulus. Similarly, computation of the interaural time difference (ITD) requires knowledge of the precise timing of the stimulus. Consistent with this, low-level nuclei of birds and mammals implicated in ITD processing encode the ongoing phase of a stimulus. However, the brain areas that follow the binaural convergence for the computation of ITD show a reduced capacity for phase locking. In addition, we have shown that in the barn owl there is a pooling of ITD-responsive neurons to improve the reliability of ITD coding. Here we demonstrate that despite two stages of convergence and an effective loss of phase information, the auditory system of the anesthetized barn owl displays a graceful transition to an envelope coding that preserves the spectrotemporal information throughout the ITD pathway to the neurons of the core of the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus.
Bilateral cochlear implantation seeks to improve hearing by taking advantage of the binaural processing of the central auditory system. Cochlear implants typically encode sound in each spectral channel by amplitude modulating (AM) a fixed-rate pulse train, thus interaural time differences (ITD) are only delivered in the envelope. We investigated the ITD sensitivity of inferior colliculus (IC) neurons with sinusoidally AM pulse trains. ITD was introduced independently to the AM and/or carrier pulses to measure the relative efficacy of envelope and fine structure for delivering ITD information. We found that many IC cells are sensitive to ITD in both the envelope (ITDenv) and fine structure (ITDfs) for appropriate modulation frequencies and carrier rates. ITDenv sensitivity was generally similar to that seen in normal-hearing animals with AM tones. ITDenv tuning generally improved with increasing modulation frequency up to the maximum modulation frequency that elicited a sustained response in a neuron (tested ≤Hz). ITDfs sensitivity was present in about half the neurons for 1,000 pulse/s (pps) carriers and was nonexistent at 5,000 pps. The neurons that were sensitive to ITDfs at 1,000 pps were those that showed the best ITD sensitivity to low-rate pulse trains. Overall, the best ITD sensitivity was found for ITD contained in the fine structure of a moderate rate AM pulse train (1,000 pps). These results suggest that the interaural timing of current pulses should be accurately controlled in a bilateral cochlear implant processing strategy that provides salient ITD cues.
Otitis media with effusion (OME) is a pathologic condition of the middle ear that leads to a mild to moderate conductive hearing loss as a result of fluid in the middle ear. Recurring OME in children during the first few years of life has been shown to be associated with poor detection and recognition of sounds in noisy environments, hypothesized to result due to altered sound localization cues. To explore this hypothesis, we simulated a middle ear effusion by filling the middle ear space of chinchillas with different viscosities and volumes of silicone oil to simulate varying degrees of OME. While the effects of middle ear effusions on the interaural level difference (ILD) cue to location are known, little is known about whether and how middle ear effusions affect interaural time differences (ITDs). Cochlear microphonic amplitudes and phases were measured in response to sounds delivered from several locations in azimuth before and after filling the middle ear with fluid. Significant attenuations (20–40 dB) of sound were observed when the middle ear was filled with at least 1.0 ml of fluid with a viscosity of 3.5 Poise (P) or greater. As expected, ILDs were altered by ~30 dB. Additionally, ITDs were shifted by ~600 μs for low frequency stimuli (<4 kHz) due to a delay in the transmission of sound to the inner ear. The data show that in an experimental model of OME, ILDs and ITDs are shifted in the spatial direction of the ear without the experimental effusion.
otitis media with effusion; conductive hearing loss; sound localization; cochlear microphonic
Sound localization is important for orienting and focusing attention and for segregating sounds from different sources in the environment. In humans, horizontal sound localization mainly relies on interaural differences in sound arrival time and sound level. Despite their perceptual importance, the neural processing of interaural time and level differences (ITDs and ILDs) remains poorly understood. Animal studies suggest that, in the brainstem, ITDs and ILDs are processed independently by different specialized circuits. The aim of the current study was to investigate whether, at higher processing levels, they remain independent or are integrated into a common code of sound laterality. For that, we measured late auditory cortical potentials in response to changes in sound lateralization elicited by perceptually matched changes in ITD and/or ILD. The responses to the ITD and ILD changes exhibited significant morphological differences. At the same time, however, they originated from overlapping areas of the cortex and showed clear evidence for functional coupling. These results suggest that the auditory cortex contains an integrated code of sound laterality, but also retains independent information about ITD and ILD cues. This cue-related information might be used to assess how consistent the cues are, and thus, how likely they would have arisen from the same source.
electroencephalography (EEG); adaptation; horizontal sound localization; spatial hearing
In order to localize sounds in the environment, the auditory system detects and encodes differences in signals between each ear. The exquisite sensitivity of auditory brain stem neurons to the differences in rise time of the excitation signals from the two ears allows for neuronal encoding of microsecond interaural time differences.
Low-frequency sound localization depends on the neural computation of interaural time differences (ITD) and relies on neurons in the auditory brain stem that integrate synaptic inputs delivered by the ipsi- and contralateral auditory pathways that start at the two ears. The first auditory neurons that respond selectively to ITD are found in the medial superior olivary nucleus (MSO). We identified a new mechanism for ITD coding using a brain slice preparation that preserves the binaural inputs to the MSO. There was an internal latency difference for the two excitatory pathways that would, if left uncompensated, position the ITD response function too far outside the physiological range to be useful for estimating ITD. We demonstrate, and support using a biophysically based computational model, that a bilateral asymmetry in excitatory post-synaptic potential (EPSP) slopes provides a robust compensatory delay mechanism due to differential activation of low threshold potassium conductance on these inputs and permits MSO neurons to encode physiological ITDs. We suggest, more generally, that the dependence of spike probability on rate of depolarization, as in these auditory neurons, provides a mechanism for temporal order discrimination between EPSPs.
Animals can locate the source of a sound by detecting microsecond differences in the arrival time of sound at the two ears. Neurons encoding these interaural time differences (ITDs) receive an excitatory synaptic input from each ear. They can perform a microsecond computation with excitatory synapses that have millisecond time scale because they are extremely sensitive to the input's “rise time,” the time taken to reach the peak of the synaptic input. Current theories assume that the biophysical properties of the two inputs are identical. We challenge this assumption by showing that the rise times of excitatory synaptic potentials driven by the ipsilateral ear are faster than those driven by the contralateral ear. Further, we present a computational model demonstrating that this disparity in rise times, together with the neurons' sensitivity to excitation's rise time, can endow ITD-encoding with microsecond resolution in the biologically relevant range. Our analysis also resolves a timing mismatch. The difference between contralateral and ipsilateral latencies is substantially larger than the relevant ITD range. We show how the rise time disparity compensates for this mismatch. Generalizing, we suggest that phasic-firing neurons—those that respond to rapidly, but not to slowly, changing stimuli—are selective to the temporal ordering of brief inputs. In a coincidence-detection computation the neuron will respond more robustly when a faster input leads a slower one, even if the inputs are brief and have similar amplitudes.
Interaural level difference (ILD) is the difference in sound pressure level (SPL) between the two ears and is one of the key physical cues used by the auditory system in sound localization. Our current understanding of ILD encoding has come primarily from invasive studies of individual structures, which have implicated subcortical structures such as the cochlear nucleus (CN), superior olivary complex (SOC), lateral lemniscus (LL), and inferior colliculus (IC). Noninvasive brain imaging enables studying ILD processing in multiple structures simultaneously.
In this study, blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used for the first time to measure changes in the hemodynamic responses in the adult Sprague-Dawley rat subcortex during binaural stimulation with different ILDs.
Results and Significance
Consistent responses are observed in the CN, SOC, LL, and IC in both hemispheres. Voxel-by-voxel analysis of the change of the response amplitude with ILD indicates statistically significant ILD dependence in dorsal LL, IC, and a region containing parts of the SOC and LL. For all three regions, the larger amplitude response is located in the hemisphere contralateral from the higher SPL stimulus. These findings are supported by region of interest analysis. fMRI shows that ILD dependence occurs in both hemispheres and multiple subcortical levels of the auditory system. This study is the first step towards future studies examining subcortical binaural processing and sound localization in animal models of hearing.
Bilateral cochlear implantation attempts to increase performance over a monaural prosthesis by harnessing the binaural processing of the auditory system. Although many bilaterally implanted human subjects discriminate interaural time differences (ITDs), a major cue for sound localization and signal detection in noise, their performance is typically poorer than that of normal-hearing listeners. We developed an animal model of bilateral cochlear implantation to study neural ITD sensitivity for trains of electric current pulses delivered via bilaterally implanted intracochlear electrodes. We found that a majority of single units in the inferior colliculus of acutely deafened, anesthetized cats are sensitive to ITD and that electric ITD tuning is as sharp as found for acoustic stimulation with broadband noise in normal-hearing animals. However, the sharpness and shape of ITD tuning often depended strongly on stimulus intensity; some neurons had dynamic ranges of ITD sensitivity as low as 1 dB. We also found that neural ITD sensitivity was best at pulse rates below 100 Hz and decreased with increasing pulse rate. This rate limitation parallels behavioral ITD discrimination in bilaterally implanted individuals. The sharp neural ITD sensitivity found with electric stimulation at the appropriate intensity is encouraging for the prospect of restoring the functional benefits of binaural hearing in bilaterally implanted human subjects and suggests that neural plasticity resulting from previous deafness and deprivation of binaural experience may play a role in the poor ITD discrimination with current bilateral implants.
binaural hearing; electric stimulation; neural prosthesis; cochlear implant; inferior colliculus; ITD
The brainstem auditory pathway is obligatory for all aural information. Brainstem auditory neurons must encode the level and timing of sounds, as well as their time-dependent spectral properties, the fine structure and envelope, which are essential for sound discrimination. This study focused on envelope coding in the two cochlear nuclei of the barn owl, nucleus angularis (NA) and nucleus magnocellularis (NM). NA and NM receive input from bifurcating auditory nerve fibers and initiate processing pathways specialized in encoding interaural time (ITD) and level (ILD) differences, respectively. We found that NA neurons, though unable to accurately encode stimulus phase, lock more strongly to the stimulus envelope than NM units. The spectrotemporal receptive fields (STRFs) of NA neurons exhibit a pre-excitatory suppressive field. Using multilinear regression analysis and computational modeling, we show that this feature of STRFs can account for enhanced across-trial response reliability, by locking spikes to the stimulus envelope. Our findings indicate a dichotomy in envelope coding between the time and intensity processing pathways as early as at the level of the cochlear nuclei. This allows the ILD processing pathway to encode envelope information with greater fidelity than the ITD processing pathway. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the properties of the neurons’ STRFs can be quantitatively related to spike timing reliability.
Nucleus angularis; STRF; spectrotemporal tuning; cochlear nuclei; barn owl; response reliability
Interaural time differences (ITDs) are a main cue for sound localization and sound segregation. A dominant model to study ITD detection is the sound localization circuitry in the avian auditory brainstem. Neurons in nucleus laminaris (NL) receive auditory information from both ears via the avian cochlear nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and compare the relative timing of these inputs. Timing of these inputs is crucial, as ITDs in the microsecond range must be discriminated and encoded. We modeled ITD sensitivity of single NL neurons based on previously published data and determined the minimum resolvable ITD for neurons in NL. The minimum resolvable ITD is too large to allow for discrimination by single NL neurons of naturally occurring ITDs for very low frequencies. For high frequency NL neurons (>1 kHz) our calculated ITD resolutions fall well within the natural range of ITDs and approach values of below 10 μs. We show that different parts of the ITD tuning function offer different resolution in ITD coding, suggesting that information derived from both parts may be used for downstream processing. A place code may be used for sound location at frequencies above 500 Hz, but our data suggest the slope of the ITD tuning curve ought to be used for ITD discrimination by single NL neurons at the lowest frequencies. Our results provide an important measure of the necessary temporal window of binaural inputs for future studies on the mechanisms and development of neuronal computation of temporally precise information in this important system. In particular, our data establish the temporal precision needed for conduction time regulation along NM axons.
sound localization; interaural time differences; avian brainstem; nucleus laminaris; ITD resolution