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
The auditory systems of birds and mammals use timing information from each ear to detect interaural time difference (ITD). To determine whether the Jeffress-type algorithms that underlie sensitivity to ITD in birds are an evolutionarily stable strategy, we recorded from the auditory nuclei of crocodilians, who are the sister group to the birds. In alligators, precisely timed spikes in the first-order nucleus magnocellularis (NM) encode the timing of sounds, and NM neurons project to neurons in the nucleus laminaris (NL) that detect interaural time differences. In vivo recordings from NL neurons show that the arrival time of phase-locked spikes differs between the ipsilateral and contralateral inputs. When this disparity is nullified by their best ITD, the neurons respond maximally. Thus NL neurons act as coincidence detectors. A biologically detailed model of NL with alligator parameters discriminated ITDs up to 1 kHz. The range of best ITDs represented in NL was much larger than in birds, however, and extended from 0 to 1000 μs contralateral, with a median ITD of 450 μs. Thus, crocodilians and birds employ similar algorithms for ITD detection, although crocodilians have larger heads.
Neurons in the medial superior olive (MSO) enable sound localization by their remarkable sensitivity to submillisecond interaural time differences (ITDs). Each MSO neuron has its own “best ITD” to which it responds optimally. A difference in physical path length of the excitatory inputs from both ears cannot fully account for the ITD tuning of MSO neurons. As a result, it is still debated how these inputs interact and whether the segregation of inputs to opposite dendrites, well-timed synaptic inhibition, or asymmetries in synaptic potentials or cellular morphology further optimize coincidence detection or ITD tuning. Using in vivo whole-cell and juxtacellular recordings, we show here that ITD tuning of MSO neurons is determined by the timing of their excitatory inputs. The inputs from both ears sum linearly, whereas spike probability depends nonlinearly on the size of synaptic inputs. This simple coincidence detection scheme thus makes accurate sound localization possible.
Neurons in the medial superior olive (MSO) detect microsecond differences in the arrival time of sounds between the ears (interaural time differences or ITDs), a crucial binaural cue for sound localization. Synaptic inhibition has been implicated in tuning ITD sensitivity, but the cellular mechanisms underlying its influence on coincidence detection are debated. Here we determine the impact of inhibition on coincidence detection in adult Mongolian gerbil MSO brain slices by testing precise temporal integration of measured synaptic responses using conductance-clamp. We find that inhibition dynamically shifts the peak timing of excitation, depending on its relative arrival time, which in turn modulates the timing of best coincidence detection. Inhibitory control of coincidence detection timing is consistent with the diversity of ITD functions observed in vivo and is robust under physiologically relevant conditions. Our results provide strong evidence that temporal interactions between excitation and inhibition on microsecond timescales are critical for binaural processing.
Coincidence detector neurons in the mammalian brainstem encode interaural time differences (ITDs) that are implicated in auditory processing. Myoga et al. study a previously developed neuronal model and find that inhibition is crucial for sound localization, but more dynamically than previously thought.
Interaural time difference (ITD), or the difference in timing of a sound wave arriving at the two ears, is a fundamental cue for sound localization. A wide variety of animals have specialized neural circuits dedicated to the computation of ITDs. In the avian auditory brainstem, ITDs are encoded as the spike rates in the coincidence detector neurons of the nucleus laminaris (NL). NL neurons compare the binaural phase-locked inputs from the axons of ipsi- and contralateral nucleus magnocellularis (NM) neurons. Intracellular recordings from the barn owl's NL in vivo showed that tonal stimuli induce oscillations in the membrane potential. Since this oscillatory potential resembled the stimulus sound waveform, it was named the sound analog potential (Funabiki et al., 2011). Previous modeling studies suggested that a convergence of phase-locked spikes from NM leads to an oscillatory membrane potential in NL, but how presynaptic, synaptic, and postsynaptic factors affect the formation of the sound analog potential remains to be investigated. In the accompanying paper, we derive analytical relations between these parameters and the signal and noise components of the oscillation. In this paper, we focus on the effects of the number of presynaptic NM fibers, the mean firing rate of these fibers, their average degree of phase-locking, and the synaptic time scale. Theoretical analyses and numerical simulations show that, provided the total synaptic input is kept constant, changes in the number and spike rate of NM fibers alter the ITD-independent noise whereas the degree of phase-locking is linearly converted to the ITD-dependent signal component of the sound analog potential. The synaptic time constant affects the signal more prominently than the noise, making faster synaptic input more suitable for effective ITD computation.
phase-locking; sound localization; auditory brainstem; periodic signals; oscillation; owl
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.
Barn owl; Interaural time difference; Cross-correlation; Coincidence detection; Cochlear delays; Sound localization; Nucleus laminaris; Stereausis
Initial analysis of interaural temporal disparities (ITDs), a cue for sound
localization, occurs in the superior olivary complex. The medial superior olive
(MSO) receives excitatory input from the left and right cochlear nuclei. Its neurons
are believed to be coincidence detectors, discharging when input arrives
simultaneously from the two sides. Many current psychophysical models assume a
strict version of coincidence, in which neurons of the MSO cross correlate their
left and right inputs. However, there have been few tests of this assumption. Here
we examine data derived from two earlier studies of the MSO and compare the
responses to the output of a computational model. We find that the MSO is not an
ideal cross correlator. Ideal cross correlation implies a strict relationship
between the precision of phase-locking of the inputs and the range of ITDs to which
a neuron responds. This relationship does not appear to be met. Instead, the
modeling implies that a neuron responds over a wider range of ITDs than expected
from the inferred precision of phase-locking of the inputs. The responses are more
consistent with a scheme in which the neuron can also be activated by the input from
one side alone. Such activation degrades the tuning of neurons in the MSO to
auditory neurophysiology; binaural hearing; interaural time differences; coincidence detection; phase-locking
The medial superior olive (MSO) senses microsecond differences in the coincidence of binaural signals, a critical cue for detecting sound location along the azimuth. An important component of this circuit is provided by inhibitory neurons of the medial and lateral nuclei of the trapezoid body (MNTB and LNTB, respectively). While MNTB neurons are fairly well described, little is known about the physiology of LNTB neurons. Using whole cell recordings from gerbil brainstem slices, we found that LNTB and MNTB neurons have similar membrane time constants and input resistances and fire brief action potentials, but only LNTB neurons fire repetitively in response to current steps. We observed that LNTB neurons receive graded excitatory and inhibitory synaptic inputs, with at least some of the latter arriving from other LNTB neurons. To address the relative timing of inhibition to the MSO from the LNTB versus the MNTB, we examined inhibitory responses to auditory nerve stimulation using a slice preparation that retains the circuitry from the auditory nerve to the MSO intact. Despite the longer physical path length of excitatory inputs driving contralateral inhibition, inhibition from both pathways arrived with similar latency and jitter. An analysis of paired whole cell recordings between MSO and MNTB neurons revealed a short and reliable delay between the action potential peak in MNTB neurons and the onset of the resulting IPSP (0.55 ± 0.01 ms, n = 4, mean ± SEM). Reconstructions of biocytin-labeled neurons showed that MNTB axons ranged from 580 to 858 μm in length (n = 4). We conclude that while both LNTB and MNTB neurons provide similarly timed inhibition to MSO neurons, the reliability of inhibition from the LNTB at higher frequencies is more constrained relative to that from the MNTB due to differences in intrinsic properties, the strength of excitatory inputs, and the presence of feedforward inhibition.
inhibition; auditory brainstem; timing; sound localization; axon
A wide variety of neurons encode temporal information via phase-locked spikes. In the avian auditory brainstem, neurons in the cochlear nucleus magnocellularis (NM) send phase-locked synaptic inputs to coincidence detector neurons in the nucleus laminaris (NL) that mediate sound localization. Previous modeling studies suggested that converging phase-locked synaptic inputs may give rise to a periodic oscillation in the membrane potential of their target neuron. Recent physiological recordings in vivo revealed that owl NL neurons changed their spike rates almost linearly with the amplitude of this oscillatory potential. The oscillatory potential was termed the sound analog potential, because of its resemblance to the waveform of the stimulus tone. The amplitude of the sound analog potential recorded in NL varied systematically with the interaural time difference (ITD), which is one of the most important cues for sound localization. In order to investigate the mechanisms underlying ITD computation in the NM-NL circuit, we provide detailed theoretical descriptions of how phase-locked inputs form oscillating membrane potentials. We derive analytical expressions that relate presynaptic, synaptic, and postsynaptic factors to the signal and noise components of the oscillation in both the synaptic conductance and the membrane potential. Numerical simulations demonstrate the validity of the theoretical formulations for the entire frequency ranges tested (1–8 kHz) and potential effects of higher harmonics on NL neurons with low best frequencies (<2 kHz).
phase-locking; sound localization; auditory brainstem; periodic signals; oscillation; owl
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.
The lateral superior olive (LSO) is believed to encode differences in sound level at the two ears, a cue for azimuthal sound location. Most high-frequency-sensitive LSO neurons are binaural, receiving inputs from both ears. An inhibitory input from the contralateral ear, via the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB), and excitatory input from the ipsilateral ear enable level differences to be encoded. However, the classical descriptions of low-frequency-sensitive neurons report primarily monaural cells with no contralateral inhibition. Anatomical and physiological evidence, however, shows that low-frequency LSO neurons receive low-frequency inhibitory input from ipsilateral MNTB, which in turn receives excitatory input from the contralateral cochlear nucleus and low-frequency excitatory input from the ipsilateral cochlear nucleus. Therefore, these neurons would be expected to be binaural with contralateral inhibition. Here, we re-examined binaural interaction in low-frequency (less than ~3 kHz) LSO neurons and phase locking in the MNTB. Phase locking to low-frequency tones in MNTB and ipsilaterally driven LSO neurons with frequency sensitivities < 1.2 kHz was enhanced relative to the auditory nerve. Moreover, most low-frequency LSO neurons exhibited contralateral inhibition: ipsilaterally driven responses were suppressed by raising the level of the contralateral stimulus; most neurons were sensitive to interaural time delays in pure tone and noise stimuli such that inhibition was nearly maximal when the stimuli were presented to the ears in-phase. The data demonstrate that low-frequency LSO neurons of cat are not monaural and can exhibit contralateral inhibition like their high-frequency counterparts.
lateral superior olive; medial nucleus of the trapezoid body; interaural time delay; interaural level difference; sound localization; phase locking
Many auditory neurons possess low-threshold potassium currents (IKLT ) that enhance their responsiveness to rapid and coincident inputs. We present recordings from gerbil medial superior olivary (MSO) neurons in vitro and modeling results that illustrate how IKLT improves the detection of brief signals, of weak signals in noise, and of the coincidence of signals (as needed for sound localization). We quantify the enhancing effect of IKLT on temporal processing with several measures: signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), reverse correlation or spike-triggered averaging of input currents, and inter-aural time difference (ITD) tuning curves. To characterize how IKLT, which activates below spike threshold, influences a neuron’s voltage rise toward threshold, i.e., how it filters the inputs, we focus first on the response to weak and noisy signals. Cells and models were stimulated with a computer-generated steady barrage of random inputs, mimicking weak synaptic conductance transients (the “noise”), together with a larger but still subthreshold postsynaptic conductance, EPSG (the “signal”). Reduction of IKLT decreased the SNR, mainly due to an increase in spontaneous firing (more “false positive”). The spike-triggered reverse correlation indicated that IKLT shortened the integration time for spike generation. IKLT also heightened the model’s timing selectivity for coincidence detection of simulated binaural inputs. Further, ITD tuning is shifted in favor of a slope code rather than a place code by precise and rapid inhibition onto MSO cells (Brand et al. 2002). In several ways, low-threshold outward currents are seen to shape integration of weak and strong signals in auditory neurons.
In the auditory system, precise encoding of temporal information is critical for sound localization, a task with direct behavioral relevance. Interaural timing differences are computed using axonal delay lines and cellular coincidence detectors in nucleus laminaris (NL). We present morphological and physiological data on the timing circuits in the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae, and compare these results with those from the barn owl (Tyto alba) and the domestic chick (Gallus gallus). Emu NL was composed of a compact monolayer of bitufted neurons whose two thick primary dendrites were oriented dorsoventrally. They showed a gradient in dendritic length along the presumed tonotopic axis. The NL and nucleus magnocellularis (NM) neurons were strongly immunoreactive for parvalbumin, a calcium-binding protein. Antibodies against synaptic vesicle protein 2 and glutamic acid decarboxlyase revealed that excitatory synapses terminated heavily on the dendritic tufts, while inhibitory terminals were distributed more uniformly. Physiological recordings from brainstem slices demonstrated contralateral delay lines from NM to NL. During whole-cell patch-clamp recordings, NM and NL neurons fired single spikes and were doubly-rectifying. NL and NM neurons had input resistances of 30.0 ± 19.9 MΩ and 49.0 ± 25.6 MΩ, respectively, and membrane time constants of 12.8 ± 3.8 ms and 3.9 ± 0.2 ms. These results provide further support for the Jeffress model for sound localization in birds. The emu timing circuits showed the ancestral (plesiomorphic) pattern in their anatomy and physiology, while differences in dendritic structure compared to chick and owl may indicate specialization for encoding ITDs at low best frequencies.
avian; nucleus laminaris; nucleus magnocellularis; dendrite; coincidence detection; sound localization
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
The interaural level difference (ILD) cue to sound location is first encoded in the lateral superior olive (LSO). ILD sensitivity results because the LSO receives excitatory input from the ipsilateral cochlear nucleus and inhibitory input indirectly from the contralateral cochlear nucleus via glycinergic neurons of the ipsilateral medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB). It is hypothesized that in order for LSO neurons to encode ILDs, the sound spectra at both ears must be accurately encoded via spike rate by their afferents. This spectral-coding hypothesis has not been directly tested in MNTB, likely because MNTB neurons have been mostly described and studied recently in regards to their abilities to encode temporal aspects of sounds, not spectral. Here, we test the hypothesis that MNTB neurons and their inputs from the cochlear nucleus and auditory nerve code sound spectra via discharge rate. The Random Spectral Shape (RSS) method was used to estimate how the levels of 100-ms duration spectrally stationary stimuli were weighted, both linearly and non-linearly, across a wide band of frequencies. In general, MNTB neurons, and their globular bushy cell inputs, were found to be well-modeled by a linear weighting of spectra demonstrating that the pathways through the MNTB can accurately encode sound spectra including those resulting from the acoustical cues to sound location provided by head-related directional transfer functions (DTFs). Together with the anatomical and biophysical specializations for timing in the MNTB-LSO complex, these mechanisms may allow ILDs to be computed for complex stimuli with rapid spectrotemporally-modulated envelopes such as speech and animal vocalizations and moving sound sources.
calyx of held; medial nucleus of the trapezoid body; lateral superior olive; spectrotemporal receptive field; sound localization; temporal processing
For all neurons, a proper balance of synaptic excitation and inhibition is crucial to effect computational precision. Achievement of this balance is remarkable when one considers factors that modulate synaptic strength operate on multiple overlapping time scales and affect both pre- and postsynaptic elements. Recent studies have shown that inhibitory transmitters, glycine and GABA, are co-released in auditory nuclei involved in the computation of interaural time disparities (ITDs), a cue used to process sound source location. The co-release expressed at these synapses is heavily activity dependent, and generally occurs when input rates are high. This circuitry, in both birds and mammals, relies on inhibitory input to maintain the temporal precision necessary for ITD encoding. Studies of co-release in other brain regions suggest that GABA and glycine receptors (GlyRs) interact via cross-suppressive modulation of receptor conductance. We performed in vitro whole-cell recordings in several nuclei of the chicken brainstem auditory circuit to assess whether this cross-suppressive phenomenon was evident in the avian brainstem. We evaluated the effect of pressure-puff applied glycine on synaptically evoked inhibitory currents in nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and the superior olivary nucleus (SON). Glycine pre-application reduced the amplitude of inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs) evoked during a 100 Hz train stimulus in both nuclei. This apparent glycinergic modulation was blocked in the presence of strychnine. Further experiments showed that this modulation did not depend on postsynaptic biochemical interactions such as phosphatase activity, or direct interactions between GABA and GlyR proteins. Rather, voltage clamp experiments in which we manipulated Cl− flux during agonist application suggest that activation of one receptor will modulate the conductance of the other via local changes in Cl− ion concentration within microdomains of the postsynaptic membrane.
glycine; GABA; inhibition; cross-suppression; interaural time disparities
Bilateral cochlear implantation is intended to provide the advantages of binaural hearing, including sound localization and better speech recognition in noise. In most modern implants, temporal information is carried by the envelope of pulsatile stimulation, and thresholds to interaural time differences (ITDs) are generally high compared to those obtained in normal hearing observers. One factor thought to influence ITD sensitivity is the overlap of neural populations stimulated on each side. The present study investigated the effects of acoustically stimulating bilaterally mismatched neural populations in two related paradigms: rabbit neural recordings and human psychophysical testing. The neural coding of interaural envelope timing information was measured in recordings from neurons in the inferior colliculus of the unanesthetized rabbit. Binaural beat stimuli with a 1-Hz difference in modulation frequency were presented at the best modulation frequency and intensity as the carrier frequencies at each ear were varied. Some neurons encoded envelope ITDs with carrier frequency mismatches as great as several octaves. The synchronization strength was typically nonmonotonically related to intensity. Psychophysical data showed that human listeners could also make use of binaural envelope cues for carrier mismatches of up to 2–3 octaves. Thus, the physiological and psychophysical data were broadly consistent, and suggest that bilateral cochlear implants should provide information sufficient to detect envelope ITDs even in the face of bilateral mismatch in the neural populations responding to stimulation. However, the strongly nonmonotonic synchronization to envelope ITDs suggests that the limited dynamic range with electrical stimulation may be an important consideration for ITD encoding.
sound localization; binaural; inferior colliculus; psychophysics
A major cue to the location of a sound source is the interaural time difference (ITD)–the difference in sound arrival time at the two ears. The neural representation of this auditory cue is unresolved. The classic model of ITD coding, dominant for a half-century, posits that the distribution of best ITDs (the ITD evoking a neuron’s maximal response) is unimodal and largely within the range of ITDs permitted by head-size. This is often interpreted as a place code for source location. An alternative model, based on neurophysiology in small mammals, posits a bimodal distribution of best ITDs with exquisite sensitivity to ITDs generated by means of relative firing rates between the distributions. Recently, an optimal-coding model was proposed, unifying the disparate features of these two models under the framework of efficient coding by neural populations. The optimal-coding model predicts that distributions of best ITDs depend on head size and sound frequency: for high frequencies and large heads it resembles the classic model, for low frequencies and small head sizes it resembles the bimodal model. The optimal-coding model makes key, yet unobserved, predictions: for many species, including humans, both forms of neural representation are employed, depending on sound frequency. Furthermore, novel representations are predicted for intermediate frequencies. Here, we examine these predictions in neurophysiological data from five mammalian species: macaque, guinea pig, cat, gerbil and kangaroo rat. We present the first evidence supporting these untested predictions, and demonstrate that different representations appear to be employed at different sound frequencies in the same species.
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.
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.
barn owl; neural coding; cue reliability; sound localization; other
Interaural time differences (ITDs) are the major cue for localizing low-frequency sounds. The activity of neuronal populations in the brainstem encodes ITDs with an exquisite temporal acuity of about . The response of single neurons, however, also changes with other stimulus properties like the spectral composition of sound. The influence of stimulus frequency is very different across neurons and thus it is unclear how ITDs are encoded independently of stimulus frequency by populations of neurons. Here we fitted a statistical model to single-cell rate responses of the dorsal nucleus of the lateral lemniscus. The model was used to evaluate the impact of single-cell response characteristics on the frequency-invariant mutual information between rate response and ITD. We found a rough correspondence between the measured cell characteristics and those predicted by computing mutual information. Furthermore, we studied two readout mechanisms, a linear classifier and a two-channel rate difference decoder. The latter turned out to be better suited to decode the population patterns obtained from the fitted model.
Neuronal codes are usually studied by estimating how much information the brain activity carries about the stimulus. On a single cell level, the relevant features of neuronal activity such as the firing rate or spike timing are readily available. On a population level, where many neurons together encode a stimulus property, finding the most appropriate activity features is less obvious, particularly because the neurons respond with a huge cell-to-cell variability. Here, using the example of the neuronal representation of interaural time differences, we show that the quality of the population code strongly depends on the assumption — or the model — of the population readout. We argue that invariances are useful constraints to identify “good” population codes. Based on these ideas, we suggest that the representation of interaural time differences serves a two-channel code in which the difference between the summed activities of the neurons in the two hemispheres exhibits an invariant and linear dependence on interaural time difference.
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
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 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
Humans use differences in the timing of sounds at the two ears to determine the location of a sound source. Various models have been posited for the neural representation of these interaural time differences (ITDs). These models make opposing predictions about the lateralization of ITD processing in the human brain. The weighted-image model predicts that sounds leading in time at one ear activate maximally the opposite brain hemisphere for all values of ITD. In contrast, the π-limit model assumes that ITDs beyond half the period of the stimulus center frequency are not explicitly encoded in the brain and that such “long” ITDs activate maximally the side of the brain to which the sound is heard. A previous neuroimaging study revealed activity in the human inferior colliculus consistent with the π-limit. Here we show that cortical responses to sounds with ITDs within the π-limit are in line with the predictions of both models. However, contrary to the immediate predictions of both models, neural activation is bilateral for “long” ITDs, despite these being perceived as clearly lateralized. Furthermore, processing of long ITDs leads to higher activation in cortex than processing of short ITDs. These data show that coding of ITD in cortex is fundamentally different from coding of ITD in the brain stem. We discuss these results in the context of the two models.
The avian nucleus laminaris (NL) is involved in computation of interaural time differences (ITDs) that encode the azimuthal position of a sound source. Neurons in NL are bipolar, with dorsal and ventral dendritic arbors receiving input from separate ears. NL neurons act as coincidence detectors that respond maximally when input from each ear arrives at the two dendritic arbors simultaneously. Computational and physiological studies demonstrated that the sensitivity of NL neurons to coincident inputs is modulated by an inhibitory feedback circuit via the superior olivary nucleus (SON). To understand the mechanism of this modulation, the topography of the projection from SON to NL was mapped, and the morphology of the axon terminals of SON neurons in NL was examined in chickens (Gallus gallus). In vivo injection of AlexaFluor 568 dextran amine into SON demonstrated a coarse topographic projection from SON to NL. Retrogradely labeled neurons in NL were located within the zone of anterogradely labeled terminals, suggesting a reciprocal projection from SON to NL. In vivo extracellular physiological recording further demonstrated that this topography is consistent with tonotopic maps in SON and NL. In addition, three-dimensional reconstruction of single SON axon branches within NL revealed that individual SON neurons innervate a large area of NL and terminate on both dorsal and ventral dendritic arbors of NL neurons. The organization of the projection from SON to NL supports its proposed functions of controlling the overall activity level of NL and enhancing the specificity of frequency mapping and ITD detection.
auditory brainstem; axonal projection; γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA); interaural time difference (ITD); tonotopic organization