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1.  Interaural timing difference circuits in the auditory brainstem of the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) 
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.
PMCID: PMC2948976  PMID: 16435285
avian; nucleus laminaris; nucleus magnocellularis; dendrite; coincidence detection; sound localization
2.  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
3.  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
4.  Improvements of Sound Localization Abilities by the Facial Ruff of the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) as Demonstrated by Virtual Ruff Removal 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(11):e7721.
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.
Methodology/Principal Findings
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.
PMCID: PMC2766829  PMID: 19890389
5.  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
6.  Biophysical basis of the sound analog membrane potential that underlies coincidence detection in the barn owl 
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.
PMCID: PMC3821004  PMID: 24265615
phase-locking; sound localization; auditory brainstem; periodic signals; oscillation; owl
7.  Localization of KCNC1 (Kv3.1) Potassium Channel Subunits in the Avian Auditory Nucleus Magnocellularis and Nucleus Laminaris during Development 
Journal of Neurobiology  2003;55(2):165-178.
The KCNC1 (previously Kv3.1) potassium channel, a delayed rectifier with a high threshold of activation, is highly expressed in the time coding nuclei of the adult chicken and barn owl auditory brainstem. The proposed role of KCNC1 currents in auditory neurons is to reduce the width of the action potential and enable neurons to transmit high frequency temporal information with little jitter. Because developmental changes in potassium currents are critical for the maturation of the shape of the action potential, we used immunohistochemical methods to examine the developmental expression of KCNC1 subunits in the avian auditory brainstem. The KCNC1 gene gives rise to two splice variants, a longer KCNC1b and a shorter KCNC1a that differ at the carboxy termini. Two antibodies were used: an antibody to the N-terminus that does not distinguish between KCNC1a and b isoforms, denoted as panKCNC1, and another antibody that specifically recognizes the C terminus of KCNC1b. A comparison of the staining patterns observed with the pan-KCNC1 and the KCNC1b specific antibodies suggests that KCNC1a and KCNC1b splice variants are differentially regulated during development. Although pan-KCNC1 immunoreactivity is observed from the earliest time examined in the chicken (E10), a subcellular redistribution of the immunoproduct was apparent over the course of development. KCNC1b specific staining has a late onset with immunostaining first appearing in the regions that map high frequencies in nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and nucleus laminaris (NL). The expression of KCNC1b protein begins around E14 in the chicken and after E21 in the barn owl, relatively late during ontogeny and at the time that synaptic connections mature morphologically and functionally.
PMCID: PMC3268178  PMID: 12672015
chicken; barn owl; ontogeny; time coding; outward current; high threshold
8.  Comparison of Midbrain and Thalamic Space-Specific Neurons in Barn Owls 
Journal of neurophysiology  2006;95(2):783-790.
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.
PMCID: PMC2532520  PMID: 16424454
9.  Difference in response reliability predicted by spectrotemporal tuning in the cochlear nuclei of barn owls 
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.
PMCID: PMC3059808  PMID: 21368035
Nucleus angularis; STRF; spectrotemporal tuning; cochlear nuclei; barn owl; response reliability
10.  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
11.  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
12.  Theoretical foundations of the sound analog membrane potential that underlies coincidence detection in the barn owl 
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).
PMCID: PMC3821005  PMID: 24265616
phase-locking; sound localization; auditory brainstem; periodic signals; oscillation; owl
13.  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
14.  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
15.  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
16.  Mechanisms for Adjusting Interaural Time Differences to Achieve Binaural Coincidence Detection 
Understanding binaural perception requires detailed analyses of the neural circuitry responsible for the computation of interaural time differences (ITDs). In the avian brainstem, this circuit consists of internal axonal delay lines innervating an array of coincidence detector neurons that encode external ITDs. Nucleus magnocellularis (NM) neurons project to the dorsal dendritic field of the ipsilateral nucleus laminaris (NL) and to the ventral field of the contralateral NL. Contralateral-projecting axons form a delay line system along a band of NL neurons. Binaural acoustic signals in the form of phase-locked action potentials from NM cells arrive at NL and establish a topographic map of sound source location along the azimuth. These pathways are assumed to represent a circuit similar to the Jeffress model of sound localization, establishing a place code along an isofrequency contour of NL. Three-dimensional measurements of axon lengths reveal major discrepancies with the current model; the temporal offset based on conduction length alone makes encoding of physiological ITDs impossible. However, axon diameter and distances between Nodes of Ranvier also influence signal propagation times along an axon. Our measurements of these parameters reveal that diameter and internode distance can compensate for the temporal offset inferred from axon lengths alone. Together with other recent studies these unexpected results should inspire new thinking on the cellular biology, evolution and plasticity of the circuitry underlying low frequency sound localization in both birds and mammals.
PMCID: PMC2822993  PMID: 20053889
Sound; Localization; Auditory; Brainstem; Axon; Conduction; Velocity
17.  Neuronal specializations for the processing of interaural difference cues in the chick 
Sound information is encoded as a series of spikes of the auditory nerve fibers (ANFs), and then transmitted to the brainstem auditory nuclei. Features such as timing and level are extracted from ANFs activity and further processed as the interaural time difference (ITD) and the interaural level difference (ILD), respectively. These two interaural difference cues are used for sound source localization by behaving animals. Both cues depend on the head size of animals and are extremely small, requiring specialized neural properties in order to process these cues with precision. Moreover, the sound level and timing cues are not processed independently from one another. Neurons in the nucleus angularis (NA) are specialized for coding sound level information in birds and the ILD is processed in the posterior part of the dorsal lateral lemniscus nucleus (LLDp). Processing of ILD is affected by the phase difference of binaural sound. Temporal features of sound are encoded in the pathway starting in nucleus magnocellularis (NM), and ITD is processed in the nucleus laminaris (NL). In this pathway a variety of specializations are found in synapse morphology, neuronal excitability, distribution of ion channels and receptors along the tonotopic axis, which reduces spike timing fluctuation in the ANFs-NM synapse, and imparts precise and stable ITD processing to the NL. Moreover, the contrast of ITD processing in NL is enhanced over a wide range of sound level through the activity of GABAergic inhibitory systems from both the superior olivary nucleus (SON) and local inhibitory neurons that follow monosynaptic to NM activity.
PMCID: PMC4023016  PMID: 24847212
brainstem auditory nucleus; interaural difference cues; SON; tonic inhibition; phasic inhibition
18.  Individual Spatial Responses towards Roads: Implications for Mortality Risk 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e43811.
Understanding the ecological consequences of roads and developing ways to mitigate their negative effects has become an important goal for many conservation biologists. Most mitigation measures are based on road mortality and barrier effects data. However, studying fine-scale individual spatial responses in roaded landscapes may help develop more cohesive road planning strategies for wildlife conservation.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We investigated how individuals respond in their spatial behavior toward a highway and its traffic intensity by radio-tracking two common species particularly vulnerable to road mortality (barn owl Tyto alba and stone marten Martes foina). We addressed the following questions: 1) how highways affected home-range location and size in the immediate vicinity of these structures, 2) which road-related features influenced habitat selection, 3) what was the role of different road-related features on movement properties, and 4) which characteristics were associated with crossing events and road-kills. The main findings were: 1) if there was available habitat, barn owls and stone martens may not avoid highways and may even include highways within their home-ranges; 2) both species avoided using areas near the highway when traffic was high, but tended to move toward the highway when streams were in close proximity and where verges offered suitable habitat; and 3) barn owls tended to cross above-grade highway sections while stone martens tended to avoid crossing at leveled highway sections.
Mortality may be the main road-mediated mechanism that affects barn owl and stone marten populations. Fine-scale movements strongly indicated that a decrease in road mortality risk can be realized by reducing sources of attraction, and by increasing road permeability through measures that promote safe crossings.
PMCID: PMC3435373  PMID: 22970143
19.  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
20.  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
21.  Microsecond Precision of Phase Delay in the Auditory System of the Barn Owl 
Journal of Neurophysiology  2005;94(2):1655-1658.
The auditory system encodes time with sub-millisecond accuracy. To shed new light on the basic mechanism underlying this precise temporal neuronal coding, we analyzed the neurophonic potential, a characteristic multiunit response, in the barn owl’s nucleus laminaris. We report here that the relative time measure of phase delay is robust against changes in sound level, with a precision sharper than 20 µs. Absolute measures of delay, such as group delay or signal-front delay, had much greater temporal jitter, for example due to their strong dependence on sound level. Our findings support the hypothesis that phase delay underlies the sub-millisecond precision of the representation of interaural time difference needed for sound localization.
PMCID: PMC3268176  PMID: 15843477
22.  Connections of the Auditory Brainstem in a Songbird, Taeniopygia guttata. I. Projections of Nucleus Angularis and Nucleus Laminaris to the Auditory Torus 
The Journal of comparative neurology  2010;518(11):10.1002/cne.22334.
Auditory information is important for social and reproductive behaviors in birds generally, but is crucial for oscine species (songbirds), in particular because in these species auditory feedback ensures the learning and accurate maintenance of song. While there is considerable information on the auditory projections through the forebrain of songbirds, there is no information available for projections through the brainstem. At the latter levels the prevalent model of auditory processing in birds derives from an auditory specialist, the barn owl, which uses time and intensity parameters to compute the location of sounds in space, but whether the auditory brainstem of songbirds is similarly functionally organized is unknown. To examine the songbird auditory brainstem we charted the projections of the cochlear nuclei angularis (NA) and magnocellularis (NM) and the third-order nucleus laminaris (NL) in zebra finches using standard tract-tracing techniques. As in other avian species, the projections of NM were found to be confined to NL, and NL and NA provided the ascending projections. Here we report on differential projections of NA and NL to the torus semicircularis, known in birds as nucleus mesencephalicus lateralis, pars dorsalis (MLd), and in mammals as the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICc). Unlike the case in nonsongbirds, the projections of NA and NL to MLd in the zebra finch showed substantial overlap, in agreement with the projections of the cochlear nuclei to the ICc in mammals. This organization could suggest that the “what” of auditory stimuli is as important as “where.”
PMCID: PMC3862038  PMID: 20394061
cochlear nuclei; central nucleus of inferior colliculus; MLd; zebra finch; avian
23.  Binaural Gain Modulation of Spectrotemporal Tuning in the Interaural Level Difference-Coding Pathway 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2013;33(27):11089-11099.
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.
PMCID: PMC3718367  PMID: 23825414
24.  Auditory Spatial Acuity Approximates the Resolving Power of Space-Specific Neurons 
PLoS ONE  2007;2(8):e675.
The relationship between neuronal acuity and behavioral performance was assessed in the barn owl (Tyto alba), a nocturnal raptor renowned for its ability to localize sounds and for the topographic representation of auditory space found in the midbrain. We measured discrimination of sound-source separation using a newly developed procedure involving the habituation and recovery of the pupillary dilation response. The smallest discriminable change of source location was found to be about two times finer in azimuth than in elevation. Recordings from neurons in its midbrain space map revealed that their spatial tuning, like the spatial discrimination behavior, was also better in azimuth than in elevation by a factor of about two. Because the PDR behavioral assay is mediated by the same circuitry whether discrimination is assessed in azimuth or in elevation, this difference in vertical and horizontal acuity is likely to reflect a true difference in sensory resolution, without additional confounding effects of differences in motor performance in the two dimensions. Our results, therefore, are consistent with the hypothesis that the acuity of the midbrain space map determines auditory spatial discrimination.
PMCID: PMC1925148  PMID: 17668055
25.  Modeling coincidence detection in nucleus laminaris 
Biological Cybernetics  2003;89(5):388-396.
A biologically detailed model of the binaural avian nucleus laminaris is constructed, as a two-dimensional array of multicompartment, conductance-based neurons, along tonotopic and interaural time delay (ITD) axes. The model is based primarily on data from chick nucleus laminaris. Typical chick-like parameters perform ITD discrimination up to 2 kHz, and enhancements for barn owl perform ITD discrimination up to 6 kHz. The dendritic length gradient of NL is explained concisely. The response to binaural out-of-phase input is suppressed well below the response to monaural input (without any spontaneous activity on the opposite side), implicating active potassium channels as crucial to good ITD discrimination.
PMCID: PMC3269635  PMID: 14669019

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