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1.  The representation of sound localization cues in the barn owl's inferior colliculus 
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.
PMCID: PMC3394089  PMID: 22798945
sound localization; central nucleus of the inferior colliculus; auditory; plasticity; adaptation; interaural time difference; interaural level difference; frequency tuning
2.  Emergence of Multiplicative Auditory Responses in the Midbrain of the Barn Owl 
Journal of neurophysiology  2007;98(3):1181-1193.
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.
PMCID: PMC2532518  PMID: 17615132
3.  Multiplicative Auditory Spatial Receptive Fields Created by a Hierarchy of Population Codes 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(11):e8015.
A multiplicative combination of tuning to interaural time difference (ITD) and interaural level difference (ILD) contributes to the generation of spatially selective auditory neurons in the owl's midbrain. Previous analyses of multiplicative responses in the owl have not taken into consideration the frequency-dependence of ITD and ILD cues that occur under natural listening conditions. Here, we present a model for the responses of ITD- and ILD-sensitive neurons in the barn owl's inferior colliculus which satisfies constraints raised by experimental data on frequency convergence, multiplicative interaction of ITD and ILD, and response properties of afferent neurons. We propose that multiplication between ITD- and ILD-dependent signals occurs only within frequency channels and that frequency integration occurs using a linear-threshold mechanism. The model reproduces the experimentally observed nonlinear responses to ITD and ILD in the inferior colliculus, with greater accuracy than previous models. We show that linear-threshold frequency integration allows the system to represent multiple sound sources with natural sound localization cues, whereas multiplicative frequency integration does not. Nonlinear responses in the owl's inferior colliculus can thus be generated using a combination of cellular and network mechanisms, showing that multiple elements of previous theories can be combined in a single system.
PMCID: PMC2776990  PMID: 19956693
4.  Population-wide bias of surround suppression in auditory spatial receptive fields of the owl’s midbrain 
The physical arrangement of receptive fields (RFs) within neural structures is important for local computations. Nonuniform distribution of tuning within populations of neurons can influence emergent tuning properties, causing bias in local processing. This issue was studied in the auditory system of barn owls. The owl’s external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICx) contains a map of auditory space where the frontal region is overrepresented. We measured spatiotemporal RFs of ICx neurons using spatial white noise. We found a population-wide bias in surround suppression such that suppression from frontal space was stronger. This asymmetry increased with laterality in spatial tuning. The bias could be explained by a model of lateral inhibition based on the overrepresentation of frontal space observed in ICx. The model predicted trends in surround suppression across ICx that matched the data. Thus, the uneven distribution of spatial tuning within the map could explain the topography of time-dependent tuning properties. This mechanism may have significant implications for the analysis of natural scenes by sensory systems.
PMCID: PMC3447633  PMID: 22855796
Sound localization; spatiotemporal receptive field; inferior colliculus; barn owl; surround bias
5.  Noise Reduction of Coincidence Detector Output by the Inferior Colliculus of the Barn Owl 
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.
PMCID: PMC2492673  PMID: 16738236
interaural time difference; sound localization; inferior colliculus; nucleus laminaris; barn owl; pooling
6.  Bidirectional Regulation of the Cyclic-AMP Response Element Binding Protein Encodes Spatial Map Alignment in Prism-Adapting Barn Owls 
The barn owl midbrain contains mutually aligned maps of auditory and visual space. Throughout life, map alignment is maintained through the actions of an instructive signal that encodes the magnitude of auditory-visual mismatch. The intracellular signaling pathways activated by this signal are unknown. Here we tested the hypothesis that CREB (cAMP response element binding protein) provides a cell-specific readout of instructive information. Owls were fitted with prismatic or control spectacles and provided rich auditory-visual experience - hunting live mice. CREB activation was analyzed within 30 minutes of hunting using phosphorylation state-specific (pCREB) and CREB antibodies, confocal imaging and immunofluorescence measurements at individual cell nuclei. In control owls or prism-adapted owls, which experience small instructive signals, the frequency distributions of pCREB/CREB values obtained for cell nuclei within the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICX) were unimodal. In contrast, in owls adapting to prisms or re-adapting to normal conditions, the distributions were bimodal: certain cells had received a signal that positively regulated CREB, and by extension, transcription of CREB-dependent genes, while others a signal that negatively regulated it. These changes were restricted to the sub-region of the inferior colliculus that received optically displaced input, the rostral ICX, and not evident in the caudal ICX or central nucleus. Finally, the topographic pattern of CREB regulation was patchy, not continuous, as expected from the actions of a topographically precise signal encoding discrete events. These results support a model in which the magnitude of CREB activation within individual cells provides a readout of the instructive signal that guides plasticity and learning.
PMCID: PMC3513381  PMID: 18829948
Auditory; CREB; Inferior Colliculus; Learning; Plasticity; signal transduction
7.  Axodendritic Contacts onto Calcium/Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinase Type II-Expressing Neurons in the Barn Owl Auditory Space Map 
In the owl midbrain, a map of auditory space is synthesized in the inferior colliculus (IC) and conveyed to the optic tectum (OT). Ascending auditory information courses through these structures via topographic axonal projections. Little is known about the molecular composition of projection neurons or their postsynaptic targets. To visualize axodendritic contacts between identified cell types, we used double-label immunohistochemistry, in vivo retrograde tracing, in vitro anterograde tracing, high-resolution confocal microscopy, three-dimensional reconstruction and fly-through visualization. We discovered a major class of IC neurons that strongly expressed calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase type II, α subunit (CaMKII). The distribution of these cells within the IC was mostly restricted to the external nucleus of the IC (ICX), in which the auditory space map is assembled. A large proportion of ICX-OT projection neurons were CaMKII positive. In addition to being the principal outputs, CaMKII cells were in direct contact with axonal boutons emanating from the main source of input to ICX, the lateral shell of the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICCls). Numerous sites of putative synaptic contact were found on the somata, proximal dendrites, and distal dendrites. Double-label immunoelectron microscopy confirmed the existence of synapses between ICCls axons and the dendrites of CaMKII cells. Collectively, our data indicate that CaMKII ICX neurons are a cellular locus for the computation of auditory space-specific responses. Because the ICCls-ICX projection is physically altered during experience-dependent plasticity, these results lay the groundwork for probing microanatomical rearrangements that may underlie plasticity and learning.
PMCID: PMC1489181  PMID: 15944389
convergence; dendrite; development; sound localization; synapse
8.  Spatial cue reliability drives frequency tuning in the barn Owl's midbrain 
eLife  null;3:e04854.
The robust representation of the environment from unreliable sensory cues is vital for the efficient function of the brain. However, how the neural processing captures the most reliable cues is unknown. The interaural time difference (ITD) is the primary cue to localize sound in horizontal space. ITD is encoded in the firing rate of neurons that detect interaural phase difference (IPD). Due to the filtering effect of the head, IPD for a given location varies depending on the environmental context. We found that, in barn owls, at each location there is a frequency range where the head filtering yields the most reliable IPDs across contexts. Remarkably, the frequency tuning of space-specific neurons in the owl's midbrain varies with their preferred sound location, matching the range that carries the most reliable IPD. Thus, frequency tuning in the owl's space-specific neurons reflects a higher-order feature of the code that captures cue reliability.
eLife digest
The ability to locate where a sound is coming from is an essential survival skill for both prey and predator species. A major cue used by the brain to infer the sound's location is the difference in arrival time of the sound at the left and right ears; for example, a sound coming from the left side will reach the left ear before the right ear.
We are exposed to a variety of sounds of different intensities (loud or soft), and pitch (high or low) emitted from many different directions. The cacophony that surrounds us makes it a challenge to detect where individual sounds come from because other sounds from different directions corrupt the signals coming from the target. This background noise can profoundly affect the reliability of the sensory cue.
When sounds reach the ears, the head and external ears transform the sound in a direction-dependent manner so that some pitches are amplified more than other pitches for specific directions. However, the consequence of this filtering is that the directional information about a sound may be altered. For example, if two sounds of a similar pitch but from different locations are heard at the same time, they will add up at the ears and change the directional information. The group of neurons that respond to that range of pitches will be activated by both sounds so they cannot provide reliable information about the direction of the individual sounds. The degree to which the directional information is altered depends on the pitch that is being detected by the neurons; therefore detection of a different pitch within the sound may be a more reliable cue.
Cazettes et al. used the known filtering properties of the owl's head to predict the reliability of the timing cue for sounds coming from different directions in a noisy environment. This analysis showed that for each direction, there was a range of pitches that carried the most reliable cues. The study then focused on whether the neurons that represent hearing space in the owl's brain were sensitive to this range.
The experiments found a remarkable correlation between the pitch preferred by each neuron and the range that carried the most reliable cue for each direction. This finding challenges the common view of sensory neurons as simple processors by showing that they are also selective to high-order properties relating to the reliability of the cue.
Besides selecting the cues that are likely to be the most reliable, the brain must capture changes in the reliability of the sensory cues. In addition, this reliability must be incorporated into the information carried by neurons and used when deciding how best to act in uncertain situations. Future research will be required to unravel how the brain does this.
PMCID: PMC4291741  PMID: 25531067
barn owl; neural coding; cue reliability; sound localization; other
9.  Preservation of Spectrotemporal Tuning Between the Nucleus Laminaris and the Inferior Colliculus of the Barn Owl 
Journal of neurophysiology  2007;97(5):3544-3553.
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.
PMCID: PMC2532515  PMID: 17314241
10.  The Neural Representation of Interaural Time Differences in Gerbils Is Transformed from Midbrain to Cortex 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2014;34(50):16796-16808.
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.
PMCID: PMC4261102  PMID: 25505332
auditory cortex; inferior colliculus; interaural time differences; population coding; spatial hearing
11.  A Physiologically Based Model of Interaural Time Difference Discrimination 
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.
PMCID: PMC2041891  PMID: 15306644
auditory; binaural; hearing; inferior colliculus; localization; psychophysics
12.  Maps of interaural time difference in the chicken’s brainstem nucleus laminaris 
Biological cybernetics  2008;98(6):541-559.
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.
PMCID: PMC3170859  PMID: 18491165
Auditory; Hearing; Sound localization; Sensory
13.  Bilateral matching of frequency tuning in neural cross-correlators of the owl 
Biological cybernetics  2009;100(6):521-531.
Sound localization requires comparison between the inputs to the left and right ears. One important aspect of this comparison is the differences in arrival time to each side, also called interaural time difference (ITD).A prevalent model of ITD detection, consisting of delay lines and coincidence-detector neurons, was proposed by Jeffress (J Comp Physiol Psychol 41:35–39, 1948). As an extension of the Jeffress model, the process of detecting and encoding ITD has been compared to an effective cross-correlation between the input signals to the two ears. Because the cochlea performs a spectrotemporal decomposition of the input signal, this cross-correlation takes place over narrow frequency bands. Since the cochlear tonotopy is arranged in series, sounds of different frequencies will trigger neural activity with different temporal delays. Thus, the matching of the frequency tuning of the left and right inputs to the cross-correlator units becomes a ‘timing’ issue. These properties of auditory transduction gave theoretical support to an alternative model of ITD-detection based on a bilateral mismatch in frequency tuning, called the ‘stereausis’ model. Here we first review the current literature on the owl’s nucleus laminaris, the equivalent to the medial superior olive of mammals, which is the site where ITD is detected. Subsequently, we use reverse correlation analysis and stimulation with uncorrelated sounds to extract the effective monaural inputs to the cross-correlator neurons. We show that when the left and right inputs to the cross-correlators are defined in this manner, the computation performed by coincidence-detector neurons satisfies conditions of cross-correlation theory. We also show that the spectra of left and right inputs are matched, which is consistent with predictions made by the classic model put forth by Jeffress.
PMCID: PMC2719282  PMID: 19396457
Barn owl; Interaural time difference; Cross-correlation; Coincidence detection; Cochlear delays; Sound localization; Nucleus laminaris; Stereausis
14.  Cross-Correlation in the Auditory Coincidence Detectors of Owls 
Interaural time difference (ITD) plays a central role in many auditory functions, most importantly in sound localization. The classic model for how ITD is computed was put forth by Jeffress (1948). One of the predictions of the Jeffress model is that the neurons that compute ITD should behave as cross-correlators. Whereas cross-correlation-like properties of the ITD-computing neurons have been reported, attempts to show that the shape of the ITD response function is determined by the spectral tuning of the neuron, a core prediction of cross-correlation, have been unsuccessful. Using reverse correlation analysis, we demonstrate in the barn owl that the relationship between the spectral tuning and the ITD response of the ITD-computing neurons is that predicted by cross-correlation. Moreover, we show that a model of coincidence detector responses derived from responses to binaurally uncorrelated noise is consistent with binaural interaction based on cross-correlation. These results are thus consistent with one of the key tenets of the Jeffress model. Our work sets forth both the methodology to answer whether cross-correlation describes coincidence detector responses and a demonstration that in the barn owl, the result is that expected by theory.
PMCID: PMC2637928  PMID: 18685035
barn owl; interaural time difference; cross-correlation; coincidence detection; sound localization; nucleus laminaris
15.  Sensitivity of Inferior Colliculus Neurons to Interaural Time Differences in the Envelope Versus the Fine Structure With Bilateral Cochlear Implants 
Journal of neurophysiology  2008;99(5):2390-2407.
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.
PMCID: PMC2570106  PMID: 18287556
16.  Resolution of interaural time differences in the avian sound localization circuit—a modeling study 
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.
PMCID: PMC4143899  PMID: 25206329
sound localization; interaural time differences; avian brainstem; nucleus laminaris; ITD resolution
17.  Asymmetric Excitatory Synaptic Dynamics Underlie Interaural Time Difference Processing in the Auditory System 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(6):e1000406.
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.
Author Summary
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.
PMCID: PMC2893945  PMID: 20613857
18.  Developmental Changes Underlying the Formation of the Specialized Time Coding Circuits in Barn Owls (Tyto alba) 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2002;22(17):7671-7679.
Barn owls are capable of great accuracy in detecting the interaural time differences (ITDs) that underlie azimuthal sound localization. They compute ITDs in a circuit in nucleus laminaris (NL) that is reorganized with respect to birds like the chicken. The events that lead to the reorganization of the barn owl NL take place during embryonic development, shortly after the cochlear and laminaris nuclei have differentiated morphologically. At first the developing owl’s auditory brainstem exhibits morphology reminiscent of that of the developing chicken. Later, the two systems diverge, and the owl’s brainstem auditory nuclei undergo a secondary morphogenetic phase during which NL dendrites retract, the laminar organization is lost, and synapses are redistributed. These events lead to the restructuring of the ITD coding circuit and the consequent reorganization of the hindbrain map of ITDs and azimuthal space.
PMCID: PMC3260528  PMID: 12196590
avian development; morphogenesis; auditory; laminaris; evolution; interaural time difference
19.  The Interaural Time Difference Pathway: a Comparison of Spectral Bandwidth and Correlation Sensitivity at Three Anatomical Levels 
Temporal differences between the two ears are critical for spatial hearing. They can be described along axes of interaural time difference (ITD) and interaural correlation, and their processing starts in the brainstem with the convergence of monaural pathways which are tuned in frequency and which carry temporal information. In previous studies, we examined the bandwidth (BW) of frequency tuning at two stages: the auditory nerve (AN) and inferior colliculus (IC), and showed that BW depends on characteristic frequency (CF) but that there is no difference in the mean BW of these two structures when measured in a binaural, temporal framework. This suggested that there is little frequency convergence in the ITD pathway between AN and IC and that frequency selectivity determined by the cochlear filter is preserved up to the IC. Unexpectedly, we found that AN and IC neurons can be similar in CF and BW, yet responses to changes in interaural correlation in the IC were different than expected from coincidence patterns (“pseudo-binaural” responses) in the AN. To better understand this, we here examine the responses of bushy cells, which provide monaural inputs to binaural neurons. Using broadband noise, we measured BW and correlation sensitivity in the cat trapezoid body (TB), which contains the axons of bushy cells. This allowed us to compare these two metrics at three stages in the ITD pathway. We found that BWs in the TB are similar to those in the AN and IC. However, TB neurons were found to be more sensitive to changes in stimulus correlation than AN or IC neurons. This is consistent with findings that show that TB fibers are more temporally precise than AN fibers, but is surprising because it suggests that the temporal information available monaurally is not fully exploited binaurally.
PMCID: PMC3946137  PMID: 24402167
binaural; temporal; bandwidth; interaural time difference; bushy cell; cochlear nucleus
20.  A Dominance Hierarchy of Auditory Spatial Cues in Barn Owls 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(4):e10396.
Barn owls integrate spatial information across frequency channels to localize sounds in space.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We presented barn owls with synchronous sounds that contained different bands of frequencies (3–5 kHz and 7–9 kHz) from different locations in space. When the owls were confronted with the conflicting localization cues from two synchronous sounds of equal level, their orienting responses were dominated by one of the sounds: they oriented toward the location of the low frequency sound when the sources were separated in azimuth; in contrast, they oriented toward the location of the high frequency sound when the sources were separated in elevation. We identified neural correlates of this behavioral effect in the optic tectum (OT, superior colliculus in mammals), which contains a map of auditory space and is involved in generating orienting movements to sounds. We found that low frequency cues dominate the representation of sound azimuth in the OT space map, whereas high frequency cues dominate the representation of sound elevation.
We argue that the dominance hierarchy of localization cues reflects several factors: 1) the relative amplitude of the sound providing the cue, 2) the resolution with which the auditory system measures the value of a cue, and 3) the spatial ambiguity in interpreting the cue. These same factors may contribute to the relative weighting of sound localization cues in other species, including humans.
PMCID: PMC2861002  PMID: 20442852
21.  Detection of Large Interaural Delays and Its Implication for Models of Binaural Interaction  
The interaural time difference (ITD) is a major cue to sound localization along the horizontal plane. The maximum natural ITD occurs when a sound source is positioned opposite to one ear. We examined the ability of owls and humans to detect large ITDs in sounds presented through headphones. Stimuli consisted of either broad or narrow bands of Gaussian noise, 100 ms in duration. Using headphones allowed presentation of ITDs that are greater than the maximum natural ITD. Owls were able to discriminate a sound leading to the left ear from one leading to the right ear, for ITDs that are 5 times the maximum natural delay. Neural recordings from optic-tectum neurons, however, show that best ITDs are usually well within the natural range and are never as large as ITDs that are behaviorally discriminable. A model of binaural cross-correlation with short delay lines is shown to explain behavioral detection of large ITDs. The model uses curved trajectories of a cross-correlation pattern as the basis for detection. These trajectories represent side peaks of neural ITD-tuning curves and successfully predict localization reversals by both owls and human subjects.
PMCID: PMC3202365  PMID: 12083726
interaural; binaural; owl; ITD
22.  Response Properties of Neighboring Neurons in the Auditory Midbrain for Pure-Tone Stimulation: A Tetrode Study 
Journal of neurophysiology  2007;98(4):2058-2073.
The complex anatomical structure of the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICC), the principal auditory nucleus in the midbrain, may provide the basis for functional organization of auditory information. To investigate this organization, we used tetrodes to record from neighboring neurons in the ICC of anesthetized cats and studied the similarity and difference among the responses of these neurons to pure-tone stimuli using widely used physiological characterizations. Consistent with the tonotopic arrangement of neurons in the ICC and reports of a threshold map, we found a high degree of correlation in the best frequencies (BFs) of neighboring neurons, which were mostly <3 kHz in our sample, and the pure-tone thresholds among neighboring neurons. However, width of frequency tuning, shapes of the frequency response areas, and temporal discharge patterns showed little or no correlation among neighboring neurons. Because the BF and threshold are measured at levels near the threshold and the characteristic frequency (CF), neighboring neurons may receive similar primary inputs tuned to their CF; however, at higher levels, additional inputs from other frequency channels may be recruited, introducing greater variability in the responses. There was also no correlation among neighboring neurons' sensitivity to interaural time differences (ITD) measured with binaural beats. However, the characteristic phases (CPs) of neighboring neurons revealed a significant correlation. Because the CP is related to the neural mechanisms generating the ITD sensitivity, this result is consistent with segregation of inputs to the ICC from the lateral and medial superior olives.
PMCID: PMC2065857  PMID: 17671101
23.  Congenital and Prolonged Adult-Onset Deafness Cause Distinct Degradations in Neural ITD Coding with Bilateral Cochlear Implants 
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.
PMCID: PMC3642270  PMID: 23462803
binaural hearing; congenital deafness; inferior colliculus; cochlear implants; ITD
24.  Dichotic sound localization properties of duration-tuned neurons in the inferior colliculus of the big brown bat 
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.
PMCID: PMC4050336  PMID: 24959149
auditory neurophysiology; binaural hearing; dichotic stimulation; Eptesicus fuscus; sound localization
25.  Sensitivity to Interaural Time Differences in the Inferior Colliculus with Bilateral Cochlear Implants 
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.
PMCID: PMC2041852  PMID: 17581961
binaural hearing; electric stimulation; neural prosthesis; cochlear implant; inferior colliculus; ITD

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