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1.  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
2.  Functional MRI of Auditory Responses in the Zebra Finch Forebrain Reveals a Hierarchical Organisation Based on Signal Strength but Not Selectivity 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(9):e3184.
Male songbirds learn their songs from an adult tutor when they are young. A network of brain nuclei known as the ‘song system’ is the likely neural substrate for sensorimotor learning and production of song, but the neural networks involved in processing the auditory feedback signals necessary for song learning and maintenance remain unknown. Determining which regions show preferential responsiveness to the bird's own song (BOS) is of great importance because neurons sensitive to self-generated vocalisations could mediate this auditory feedback process. Neurons in the song nuclei and in a secondary auditory area, the caudal medial mesopallium (CMM), show selective responses to the BOS. The aim of the present study is to investigate the emergence of BOS selectivity within the network of primary auditory sub-regions in the avian pallium.
Methods and Findings
Using blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI, we investigated neural responsiveness to natural and manipulated self-generated vocalisations and compared the selectivity for BOS and conspecific song in different sub-regions of the thalamo-recipient area Field L. Zebra finch males were exposed to conspecific song, BOS and to synthetic variations on BOS that differed in spectro-temporal and/or modulation phase structure. We found significant differences in the strength of BOLD responses between regions L2a, L2b and CMM, but no inter-stimuli differences within regions. In particular, we have shown that the overall signal strength to song and synthetic variations thereof was different within two sub-regions of Field L2: zone L2a was significantly more activated compared to the adjacent sub-region L2b.
Based on our results we suggest that unlike nuclei in the song system, sub-regions in the primary auditory pallium do not show selectivity for the BOS, but appear to show different levels of activity with exposure to any sound according to their place in the auditory processing stream.
PMCID: PMC2527133  PMID: 18781203
3.  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
4.  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
5.  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
6.  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
7.  Neural Computation via Neural Geometry: A Place Code for Inter-whisker Timing in the Barrel Cortex? 
PLoS Computational Biology  2011;7(10):e1002188.
The place theory proposed by Jeffress (1948) is still the dominant model of how the brain represents the movement of sensory stimuli between sensory receptors. According to the place theory, delays in signalling between neurons, dependent on the distances between them, compensate for time differences in the stimulation of sensory receptors. Hence the location of neurons, activated by the coincident arrival of multiple signals, reports the stimulus movement velocity. Despite its generality, most evidence for the place theory has been provided by studies of the auditory system of auditory specialists like the barn owl, but in the study of mammalian auditory systems the evidence is inconclusive. We ask to what extent the somatosensory systems of tactile specialists like rats and mice use distance dependent delays between neurons to compute the motion of tactile stimuli between the facial whiskers (or ‘vibrissae’). We present a model in which synaptic inputs evoked by whisker deflections arrive at neurons in layer 2/3 (L2/3) somatosensory ‘barrel’ cortex at different times. The timing of synaptic inputs to each neuron depends on its location relative to sources of input in layer 4 (L4) that represent stimulation of each whisker. Constrained by the geometry and timing of projections from L4 to L2/3, the model can account for a range of experimentally measured responses to two-whisker stimuli. Consistent with that data, responses of model neurons located between the barrels to paired stimulation of two whiskers are greater than the sum of the responses to either whisker input alone. The model predicts that for neurons located closer to either barrel these supralinear responses are tuned for longer inter-whisker stimulation intervals, yielding a topographic map for the inter-whisker deflection interval across the surface of L2/3. This map constitutes a neural place code for the relative timing of sensory stimuli.
Author Summary
To perceive how stimuli move over sensor surfaces like the retina or the fingertips, neurons in the brain must report the relative timing of signals arriving at different locations on the sensor surface. The rat whisker system is ideal for exploring how the brain performs this computation, because the layout of a small number of sensors (whiskers) maps directly onto the layout of corresponding columns of neurons in the sensory cortex. Previous studies have found that neurons located between adjacent cortical columns are most likely to respond when the corresponding adjacent whiskers are stimulated in rapid succession. These results suggest a link between the location of the neuron and the relative timing of sensory signals reported by its activity. We hypothesized that, if the time taken for whisker signals to arrive at a neuron is related to its distance from each cortical column, then neurons closer to a particular column will report stimuli moving towards that particular whisker. In a model approximating the geometry of cortical connections, responses of artificial neurons matched those of real neurons on a wide range of details. These results suggest an important role for neural geometry in neural computation.
PMCID: PMC3192806  PMID: 22022245
8.  Auditory synapses to song premotor neurons are gated off during vocalization in zebra finches 
eLife  2014;3:e01833.
Songbirds use auditory feedback to learn and maintain their songs, but how feedback interacts with vocal motor circuitry remains unclear. A potential site for this interaction is the song premotor nucleus HVC, which receives auditory input and contains neurons (HVCX cells) that innervate an anterior forebrain pathway (AFP) important to feedback-dependent vocal plasticity. Although the singing-related output of HVCX cells is unaltered by distorted auditory feedback (DAF), deafening gradually weakens synapses on HVCX cells, raising the possibility that they integrate feedback only at subthreshold levels during singing. Using intracellular recordings in singing zebra finches, we found that DAF failed to perturb singing-related synaptic activity of HVCX cells, although many of these cells responded to auditory stimuli in non-singing states. Moreover, in vivo multiphoton imaging revealed that deafening-induced changes to HVCX synapses require intact AFP output. These findings support a model in which the AFP accesses feedback independent of HVC.
eLife digest
Whenever we speak, sing, or play a musical instrument, we use auditory feedback to fine-tune our movements to achieve the sound that we want. This same process is used by songbirds to learn and maintain their songs. As juvenile birds practice singing, they compare their vocalizations with their father’s song, which they will previously have stored in memory, and continually tweak their own song until the two versions match.
It has been suggested that auditory feedback is integrated with song motor commands—the instructions from the brain to move the muscles required for singing—in a region of the songbird brain called the song premotor nucleus HVC. The structure of certain neurons in this region, known as HVCX cells, rapidly changes when a bird is deafened, which suggests that these HVCX cells detect auditory feedback.
Hamaguchi et al. have now tested this idea by using fine electrodes to record the signals in HVCX cells in male zebra finches as they sang. The cells changed their activity patterns whenever the birds changed their vocalizations. By contrast, these patterns did not change when the birds heard a distorted version of their own song played back to them as they sang. This suggests that HVCX cells are insensitive to auditory feedback, and that they mainly encode song motor commands instead.
If HVCX cells don’t detect feedback, then why does deafening affect them? HVCX cells send signals indirectly to a brain region called the LMAN (which is short for the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium). Normally, if a bird becomes deaf, the quality of their song begins to deteriorate, but this deterioration can be prevented by destroying the LMAN. Hamaguchi et al. used high resolution imaging to show that destroying the LMAN also prevents deafening from altering the structure of HVCX cells. Again, this suggests that auditory feedback is not relayed from the HVC to the LMAN; instead the flow of information is in the opposite direction.
This surprising finding—namely, that HVCX cells do not integrate auditory feedback and song motor commands—raises the question of which brain region is in fact responsible for this process. Further experiments will be required to identify the underlying circuitry in the brains of songbirds.
PMCID: PMC3927426  PMID: 24550254
zebra finch; auditory feedback; sensorimotor; birdsong; other
9.  Gradients and Modulation of K+ Channels Optimize Temporal Accuracy in Networks of Auditory Neurons 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(3):e1002424.
Accurate timing of action potentials is required for neurons in auditory brainstem nuclei to encode the frequency and phase of incoming sound stimuli. Many such neurons express “high threshold” Kv3-family channels that are required for firing at high rates (>∼200 Hz). Kv3 channels are expressed in gradients along the medial-lateral tonotopic axis of the nuclei. Numerical simulations of auditory brainstem neurons were used to calculate the input-output relations of ensembles of 1–50 neurons, stimulated at rates between 100–1500 Hz. Individual neurons with different levels of potassium currents differ in their ability to follow specific rates of stimulation but all perform poorly when the stimulus rate is greater than the maximal firing rate of the neurons. The temporal accuracy of the combined synaptic output of an ensemble is, however, enhanced by the presence of gradients in Kv3 channel levels over that measured when neurons express uniform levels of channels. Surprisingly, at high rates of stimulation, temporal accuracy is also enhanced by the occurrence of random spontaneous activity, such as is normally observed in the absence of sound stimulation. For any pattern of stimulation, however, greatest accuracy is observed when, in the presence of spontaneous activity, the levels of potassium conductance in all of the neurons is adjusted to that found in the subset of neurons that respond better than their neighbors. This optimization of response by adjusting the K+ conductance occurs for stimulus patterns containing either single and or multiple frequencies in the phase-locking range. The findings suggest that gradients of channel expression are required for normal auditory processing and that changes in levels of potassium currents across the nuclei, by mechanisms such as protein phosphorylation and rapid changes in channel synthesis, adapt the nuclei to the ongoing auditory environment.
Author Summary
In order to detect the nature and location of a sound stimulus, neurons in the central auditory system have to fire at very high rates with extreme temporal precision. Specifically, they have to be able to follow changes in an auditory stimulus at rates of up to 2000 Hz or more and to lock their action potentials to the stimuli with a precision of only a few microseconds. An individual neuron, however, cannot fire at such high rates, and the intrinsic electrical properties of neurons, such as the relative refractory period that follows each action potential, severely limits accuracy of timing at high rates. The intrinsic excitability of neurons is governed by the potassium channels that they express. It has been found in auditory brainstem nuclei that there exist gradients of these channels such that each neuron typically has a different number of channels than its neighbors. In this study, computational models based on measurements in auditory neurons demonstrate that, in the presence of random spontaneous activity such as is normally observed in auditory neurons, rapid adjustments of levels of potassium current within neurons along the gradient are required to allow the ensemble to transmit accurate timing information. The findings suggest that regulation of potassium channels within gradients is an integral component of auditory processing.
PMCID: PMC3305353  PMID: 22438799
10.  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
11.  Computational Diversity in the Cochlear Nucleus Angularis of the Barn Owl 
Journal of Neurophysiology  2002;89(4):2313-2329.
The cochlear nucleus angularis (NA) is widely assumed to form the starting point of a brain stem pathway for processing sound intensity in birds. Details of its function are unclear, however, and its evolutionary origin and relationship to the mammalian cochlear-nucleus complex are obscure. We have carried out extracellular single-unit recordings in the NA of ketamine-anesthetized barn owls. The aim was to re-evaluate the extent of heterogeneity in NA physiology because recent studies of cellular morphology had established several distinct types. Extensive characterization, using tuning curves, phase locking, peristimulus time histograms and rate-level functions for pure tones and noise, revealed five major response types. The most common one was a primary-like pattern that was distinguished from auditory-nerve fibers by showing lower vector strengths of phase locking and/or lower spontaneous rates. Two types of chopper responses were found (chopper-transient and a rare chopper-sustained), as well as onset units. Finally, we routinely encountered a complex response type with a pronounced inhibitory component, similar to the mammalian typeIV. Evidence is presented that this range of response types is representative for birds and that earlier conflicting reports may be due to methodological differences. All five response types defined were similar to well-known types in the mammalian cochlear nucleus. This suggests convergent evolution of neurons specialized for encoding different behaviorally relevant features of the auditory stimulus. It remains to be investigated whether the different response types correlate with morphological types and whether they establish different processing streams in the auditory brain stem of birds.
PMCID: PMC3259745  PMID: 12612008
12.  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
13.  Social Context–Induced Song Variation Affects Female Behavior and Gene Expression 
PLoS Biology  2008;6(3):e62.
Social cues modulate the performance of communicative behaviors in a range of species, including humans, and such changes can make the communication signal more salient. In songbirds, males use song to attract females, and song organization can differ depending on the audience to which a male sings. For example, male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) change their songs in subtle ways when singing to a female (directed song) compared with when they sing in isolation (undirected song), and some of these changes depend on altered neural activity from a specialized forebrain-basal ganglia circuit, the anterior forebrain pathway (AFP). In particular, variable activity in the AFP during undirected song is thought to actively enable syllable variability, whereas the lower and less-variable AFP firing during directed singing is associated with more stereotyped song. Consequently, directed song has been suggested to reflect a “performance” state, and undirected song a form of vocal motor “exploration.” However, this hypothesis predicts that directed–undirected song differences, despite their subtlety, should matter to female zebra finches, which is a question that has not been investigated. We tested female preferences for this natural variation in song in a behavioral approach assay, and we found that both mated and socially naive females could discriminate between directed and undirected song—and strongly preferred directed song. These preferences, which appeared to reflect attention especially to aspects of song variability controlled by the AFP, were enhanced by experience, as they were strongest for mated females responding to their mate's directed songs. We then measured neural activity using expression of the immediate early gene product ZENK, and found that social context and song familiarity differentially modulated the number of ZENK-expressing cells in telencephalic auditory areas. Specifically, the number of ZENK-expressing cells in the caudomedial mesopallium (CMM) was most affected by whether a song was directed or undirected, whereas the caudomedial nidopallium (NCM) was most affected by whether a song was familiar or unfamiliar. Together these data demonstrate that females detect and prefer the features of directed song and suggest that high-level auditory areas including the CMM are involved in this social perception.
Author Summary
Vocal communication in many species, including humans, is affected by social cues. In the zebra finch, for example, males make subtle changes to the length, tempo, and variability of their courtship songs (directed songs) relative to songs performed in isolation (undirected songs). Using a behavioral approach assay, we found that female zebra finches strongly prefer the sound of directed over undirected song. Interestingly, female preferences were influenced by the variability of note pitch, showing stronger preferences for directed songs when they were less variable in pitch than the undirected songs. Pitch variability is controlled by a forebrain–basal ganglia circuit, which may represent a neural substrate on which selection acts to shape behavior. Preference for directed song was also increased when the singer was familiar to the listener, suggesting that song preferences are enhanced by experience. Based on the expression of an immediate early gene associated with memory formation and plasticity, we found that two high-level auditory areas were differentially responsive to the category of song females heard, with one area responding to whether songs were directed or undirected, and a second area to whether songs were familiar or unfamiliar. Together, these data demonstrate that females detect and prefer the male's changed performance during courtship singing and suggest that neurons in high-level auditory areas are involved in this social perception.
Female songbirds are attentive to subtle changes in male song, particularly to the variability of pitch. High-level auditory areas may generate females' behavioral preferences.
PMCID: PMC2267820  PMID: 18351801
14.  Noise-invariant Neurons in the Avian Auditory Cortex: Hearing the Song in Noise 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(3):e1002942.
Given the extraordinary ability of humans and animals to recognize communication signals over a background of noise, describing noise invariant neural responses is critical not only to pinpoint the brain regions that are mediating our robust perceptions but also to understand the neural computations that are performing these tasks and the underlying circuitry. Although invariant neural responses, such as rotation-invariant face cells, are well described in the visual system, high-level auditory neurons that can represent the same behaviorally relevant signal in a range of listening conditions have yet to be discovered. Here we found neurons in a secondary area of the avian auditory cortex that exhibit noise-invariant responses in the sense that they responded with similar spike patterns to song stimuli presented in silence and over a background of naturalistic noise. By characterizing the neurons' tuning in terms of their responses to modulations in the temporal and spectral envelope of the sound, we then show that noise invariance is partly achieved by selectively responding to long sounds with sharp spectral structure. Finally, to demonstrate that such computations could explain noise invariance, we designed a biologically inspired noise-filtering algorithm that can be used to separate song or speech from noise. This novel noise-filtering method performs as well as other state-of-the-art de-noising algorithms and could be used in clinical or consumer oriented applications. Our biologically inspired model also shows how high-level noise-invariant responses could be created from neural responses typically found in primary auditory cortex.
Author Summary
Birds and humans excel at the task of detecting important sounds, such as song and speech, in difficult listening environments such as in a large bird colony or in a crowded bar. How our brains achieve such a feat remains a mystery to both neuroscientists and audio engineers. In our research, we found a population of neurons in the brain of songbirds that are able to extract a song signal from a background of noise. We explain how the neurons are able to perform this task and show how a biologically inspired algorithm could outperform the best noise-reduction methods proposed by engineers.
PMCID: PMC3591274  PMID: 23505354
15.  A role for descending auditory cortical projections in songbird vocal learning 
eLife  2014;3:e02152.
Many learned motor behaviors are acquired by comparing ongoing behavior with an internal representation of correct performance, rather than using an explicit external reward. For example, juvenile songbirds learn to sing by comparing their song with the memory of a tutor song. At present, the brain regions subserving song evaluation are not known. In this study, we report several findings suggesting that song evaluation involves an avian 'cortical' area previously shown to project to the dopaminergic midbrain and other downstream targets. We find that this ventral portion of the intermediate arcopallium (AIV) receives inputs from auditory cortical areas, and that lesions of AIV result in significant deficits in vocal learning. Additionally, AIV neurons exhibit fast responses to disruptive auditory feedback presented during singing, but not during nonsinging periods. Our findings suggest that auditory cortical areas may guide learning by transmitting song evaluation signals to the dopaminergic midbrain and/or other subcortical targets.
eLife digest
Most new skills, from playing a sport to learning a language, are acquired through a gradual process of trial and error. While some of this learning is driven by direct external rewards, such as praise, much of it occurs when the individual compares their current performance with their own impression of what a ‘correct’ performance should be. The way that the brain responds to external rewards is relatively well understood, but much less is known about the processes used by the brain to evaluate its own performance.
One way to study this process is to examine how songbirds learn their songs. While in the nest, young male birds memorize another bird's song, usually that of their father. They learn to sing by comparing their own vocals with this memorized template, tweaking their song until the two versions match. Now, Mandelblat-Cerf et al. have identified a pathway in the brain that enables the birds to make this comparison and to use any discrepancies to improve their subsequent attempts.
Anatomical labeling experiments revealed that a brain structure called the arcopallium has a key role in this process. The ventral part of this structure (known as AIV) receives inputs from the auditory cortex—meaning that it has access to the bird’s own song—and then forms connections with a specific group of neurons in the midbrain. These midbrain neurons, which communicate using the chemical transmitter dopamine, project to brain regions that ultimately control the movements involved in singing. This means that the AIV is ideally positioned to be able to evaluate and then adjust the song as required.
Consistent with this possibility, young zebra finches were less able to imitate a template song if their AIV was destroyed before they had started practicing. By contrast, destroying the AIV in adult birds who had already learned their song did not impair performance, indicating that the arcopallium circuit supports song learning rather than singing per se. Finally, recordings of neurons in the AIV made during singing revealed that this brain area sends signals about discrepancies between what the young bird tries to sing and what he hears himself sing.
In addition to providing further clues as to how the songbirds learn their songs, this work also highlights the fact that dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain—which are best known for being involved in our response to external rewards such as food and drugs—also contribute to learning that is driven internally.
PMCID: PMC4113997  PMID: 24935934
songbird; error signal; vocal learning; other
16.  Delay Selection by Spike-Timing-Dependent Plasticity in Recurrent Networks of Spiking Neurons Receiving Oscillatory Inputs 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(2):e1002897.
Learning rules, such as spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP), change the structure of networks of neurons based on the firing activity. A network level understanding of these mechanisms can help infer how the brain learns patterns and processes information. Previous studies have shown that STDP selectively potentiates feed-forward connections that have specific axonal delays, and that this underlies behavioral functions such as sound localization in the auditory brainstem of the barn owl. In this study, we investigate how STDP leads to the selective potentiation of recurrent connections with different axonal and dendritic delays during oscillatory activity. We develop analytical models of learning with additive STDP in recurrent networks driven by oscillatory inputs, and support the results using simulations with leaky integrate-and-fire neurons. Our results show selective potentiation of connections with specific axonal delays, which depended on the input frequency. In addition, we demonstrate how this can lead to a network becoming selective in the amplitude of its oscillatory response to this frequency. We extend this model of axonal delay selection within a single recurrent network in two ways. First, we show the selective potentiation of connections with a range of both axonal and dendritic delays. Second, we show axonal delay selection between multiple groups receiving out-of-phase, oscillatory inputs. We discuss the application of these models to the formation and activation of neuronal ensembles or cell assemblies in the cortex, and also to missing fundamental pitch perception in the auditory brainstem.
Author Summary
Our brain's ability to perform cognitive processes, such as object identification, problem solving, and decision making, comes from the specific connections between neurons. The neurons carry information as spikes that are transmitted to other neurons via connections with different strengths and propagation delays. Experimentally observed learning rules can modify the strengths of connections between neurons based on the timing of their spikes. The learning that occurs in neuronal networks due to these rules is thought to be vital to creating the structures necessary for different cognitive processes as well as for memory. The spiking rate of populations of neurons has been observed to oscillate at particular frequencies in various brain regions, and there is evidence that these oscillations play a role in cognition. Here, we use analytical and numerical methods to investigate the changes to the network structure caused by a specific learning rule during oscillatory neural activity. We find the conditions under which connections with propagation delays that resonate with the oscillations are strengthened relative to the other connections. We demonstrate that networks learn to oscillate more strongly to oscillations at the frequency they were presented with during learning. We discuss the possible application of these results to specific areas of the brain.
PMCID: PMC3567188  PMID: 23408878
17.  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
18.  Decoding neural responses to temporal cues for sound localization 
eLife  2013;2:e01312.
The activity of sensory neural populations carries information about the environment. This may be extracted from neural activity using different strategies. In the auditory brainstem, a recent theory proposes that sound location in the horizontal plane is decoded from the relative summed activity of two populations in each hemisphere, whereas earlier theories hypothesized that the location was decoded from the identity of the most active cells. We tested the performance of various decoders of neural responses in increasingly complex acoustical situations, including spectrum variations, noise, and sound diffraction. We demonstrate that there is insufficient information in the pooled activity of each hemisphere to estimate sound direction in a reliable way consistent with behavior, whereas robust estimates can be obtained from neural activity by taking into account the heterogeneous tuning of cells. These estimates can still be obtained when only contralateral neural responses are used, consistently with unilateral lesion studies.
eLife digest
Having two ears allows animals to localize the source of a sound. For example, barn owls can snatch their prey in complete darkness by relying on sound alone. It has been known for a long time that this ability depends on tiny differences in the sounds that arrive at each ear, including differences in the time of arrival: in humans, for example, sound will arrive at the ear closer to the source up to half a millisecond earlier than it arrives at the other ear. These differences are called interaural time differences. However, the way that the brain processes this information to figure out where the sound came from has been the source of much debate.
Several theories have been proposed for how the brain calculates position from interaural time differences. According to the hemispheric theory, the activities of particular binaurally sensitive neurons in each of side of the brain are added together: adding signals in this way has been shown to maximize sensitivity to time differences under simple, controlled circumstances. The peak decoding theory proposes that the brain can work out the location of a sound on the basis of which neurons responded most strongly to the sound.
Both theories have their potential advantages, and there is evidence in support of each. Now, Goodman et al. have used computational simulations to compare the models under ecologically relevant circumstances. The simulations show that the results predicted by both models are inconsistent with those observed in real animals, and they propose that the brain must use the full pattern of neural responses to calculate the location of a sound.
One of the parts of the brain that is responsible for locating sounds is the inferior colliculus. Studies in cats and humans have shown that damage to the inferior colliculus on one side of the brain prevents accurate localization of sounds on the opposite side of the body, but the animals are still able to locate sounds on the same side. This finding is difficult to explain using the hemispheric model, but Goodman et al. show that it can be explained with pattern-based models.
PMCID: PMC3844708  PMID: 24302571
sound localization; neural coding; audition; None
19.  Impairments of auditory scene analysis in Alzheimer's disease 
Brain  2011;135(1):190-200.
Parsing of sound sources in the auditory environment or ‘auditory scene analysis’ is a computationally demanding cognitive operation that is likely to be vulnerable to the neurodegenerative process in Alzheimer’s disease. However, little information is available concerning auditory scene analysis in Alzheimer's disease. Here we undertook a detailed neuropsychological and neuroanatomical characterization of auditory scene analysis in a cohort of 21 patients with clinically typical Alzheimer's disease versus age-matched healthy control subjects. We designed a novel auditory dual stream paradigm based on synthetic sound sequences to assess two key generic operations in auditory scene analysis (object segregation and grouping) in relation to simpler auditory perceptual, task and general neuropsychological factors. In order to assess neuroanatomical associations of performance on auditory scene analysis tasks, structural brain magnetic resonance imaging data from the patient cohort were analysed using voxel-based morphometry. Compared with healthy controls, patients with Alzheimer's disease had impairments of auditory scene analysis, and segregation and grouping operations were comparably affected. Auditory scene analysis impairments in Alzheimer's disease were not wholly attributable to simple auditory perceptual or task factors; however, the between-group difference relative to healthy controls was attenuated after accounting for non-verbal (visuospatial) working memory capacity. These findings demonstrate that clinically typical Alzheimer's disease is associated with a generic deficit of auditory scene analysis. Neuroanatomical associations of auditory scene analysis performance were identified in posterior cortical areas including the posterior superior temporal lobes and posterior cingulate. This work suggests a basis for understanding a class of clinical symptoms in Alzheimer's disease and for delineating cognitive mechanisms that mediate auditory scene analysis both in health and in neurodegenerative disease.
PMCID: PMC3267978  PMID: 22036957
Alzheimer's disease; auditory scene analysis; auditory processing; voxel-based morphometry
20.  Molecular Mapping of Movement-Associated Areas in the Avian Brain: A Motor Theory for Vocal Learning Origin 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(3):e1768.
Vocal learning is a critical behavioral substrate for spoken human language. It is a rare trait found in three distantly related groups of birds-songbirds, hummingbirds, and parrots. These avian groups have remarkably similar systems of cerebral vocal nuclei for the control of learned vocalizations that are not found in their more closely related vocal non-learning relatives. These findings led to the hypothesis that brain pathways for vocal learning in different groups evolved independently from a common ancestor but under pre-existing constraints. Here, we suggest one constraint, a pre-existing system for movement control. Using behavioral molecular mapping, we discovered that in songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds, all cerebral vocal learning nuclei are adjacent to discrete brain areas active during limb and body movements. Similar to the relationships between vocal nuclei activation and singing, activation in the adjacent areas correlated with the amount of movement performed and was independent of auditory and visual input. These same movement-associated brain areas were also present in female songbirds that do not learn vocalizations and have atrophied cerebral vocal nuclei, and in ring doves that are vocal non-learners and do not have cerebral vocal nuclei. A compilation of previous neural tracing experiments in songbirds suggests that the movement-associated areas are connected in a network that is in parallel with the adjacent vocal learning system. This study is the first global mapping that we are aware for movement-associated areas of the avian cerebrum and it indicates that brain systems that control vocal learning in distantly related birds are directly adjacent to brain systems involved in movement control. Based upon these findings, we propose a motor theory for the origin of vocal learning, this being that the brain areas specialized for vocal learning in vocal learners evolved as a specialization of a pre-existing motor pathway that controls movement.
PMCID: PMC2258151  PMID: 18335043
21.  Helminth Communities of Owls (Strigiformes) Indicate Strong Biological and Ecological Differences from Birds of Prey (Accipitriformes and Falconiformes) in Southern Italy 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e53375.
We compared the helminth communities of 5 owl species from Calabria (Italy) and evaluated the effect of phylogenetic and ecological factors on community structure. Two host taxonomic scales were considered, i.e., owl species, and owls vs. birds of prey. The latter scale was dealt with by comparing the data here obtained with that of birds of prey from the same locality and with those published previously on owls and birds of prey from Galicia (Spain). A total of 19 helminth taxa were found in owls from Calabria. Statistical comparison showed only marginal differences between scops owls (Otus scops) and little owls (Athene noctua) and tawny owls (Strix aluco). It would indicate that all owl species are exposed to a common pool of ‘owl generalist’ helminth taxa, with quantitative differences being determined by differences in diet within a range of prey relatively narrow. In contrast, birds of prey from the same region exhibited strong differences because they feed on different and wider spectra of prey. In Calabria, owls can be separated as a whole from birds of prey with regard to the structure of their helminth communities while in Galicia helminths of owls represent a subset of those of birds of prey. This difference is related to the occurrence in Calabria, but not Galicia, of a pool of ‘owl specialist’ species. The wide geographical occurrence of these taxa suggest that local conditions may determine fundamental differences in the composition of local communities. Finally, in both Calabria and Galicia, helminth communities from owls were species-poor compared to those from sympatric birds of prey. However, birds of prey appear to share a greater pool of specific helmith taxa derived from cospeciation processes, and a greater potential exchange of parasites between them than with owls because of phylogenetic closeness.
PMCID: PMC3534061  PMID: 23300921
22.  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
23.  Visual-auditory integration for visual search: a behavioral study in barn owls 
Barn owls are nocturnal predators that rely on both vision and hearing for survival. The optic tectum of barn owls, a midbrain structure involved in selective attention, has been used as a model for studying visual-auditory integration at the neuronal level. However, behavioral data on visual-auditory integration in barn owls are lacking. The goal of this study was to examine if the integration of visual and auditory signals contributes to the process of guiding attention toward salient stimuli. We attached miniature wireless video cameras on barn owls’ heads (OwlCam) to track their target of gaze. We first provide evidence that the area centralis (a retinal area with a maximal density of photoreceptors) is used as a functional fovea in barn owls. Thus, by mapping the projection of the area centralis on the OwlCam’s video frame, it is possible to extract the target of gaze. For the experiment, owls were positioned on a high perch and four food items were scattered in a large arena on the floor. In addition, a hidden loudspeaker was positioned in the arena. The positions of the food items and speaker were changed every session. Video sequences from the OwlCam were saved for offline analysis while the owls spontaneously scanned the room and the food items with abrupt gaze shifts (head saccades). From time to time during the experiment, a brief sound was emitted from the speaker. The fixation points immediately following the sounds were extracted and the distances between the gaze position and the nearest items and loudspeaker were measured. The head saccades were rarely toward the location of the sound source but to salient visual features in the room, such as the door knob or the food items. However, among the food items, the one closest to the loudspeaker had the highest probability of attracting a gaze shift. This result supports the notion that auditory signals are integrated with visual information for the selection of the next visual search target.
PMCID: PMC4327738  PMID: 25762905
saliency; saccades; multisensory; visual search; barn owls; selective attention; sound localization
24.  Birds, primates, and spoken language origins: behavioral phenotypes and neurobiological substrates 
Vocal learners such as humans and songbirds can learn to produce elaborate patterns of structurally organized vocalizations, whereas many other vertebrates such as non-human primates and most other bird groups either cannot or do so to a very limited degree. To explain the similarities among humans and vocal-learning birds and the differences with other species, various theories have been proposed. One set of theories are motor theories, which underscore the role of the motor system as an evolutionary substrate for vocal production learning. For instance, the motor theory of speech and song perception proposes enhanced auditory perceptual learning of speech in humans and song in birds, which suggests a considerable level of neurobiological specialization. Another, a motor theory of vocal learning origin, proposes that the brain pathways that control the learning and production of song and speech were derived from adjacent motor brain pathways. Another set of theories are cognitive theories, which address the interface between cognition and the auditory-vocal domains to support language learning in humans. Here we critically review the behavioral and neurobiological evidence for parallels and differences between the so-called vocal learners and vocal non-learners in the context of motor and cognitive theories. In doing so, we note that behaviorally vocal-production learning abilities are more distributed than categorical, as are the auditory-learning abilities of animals. We propose testable hypotheses on the extent of the specializations and cross-species correspondences suggested by motor and cognitive theories. We believe that determining how spoken language evolved is likely to become clearer with concerted efforts in testing comparative data from many non-human animal species.
PMCID: PMC3419981  PMID: 22912615
evolution; humans; monkeys; avian; vertebrates; communication; speech; neurobiology
25.  A Circuit for Motor Cortical Modulation of Auditory Cortical Activity 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2013;33(36):14342-14353.
Normal hearing depends on the ability to distinguish self-generated sounds from other sounds, and this ability is thought to involve neural circuits that convey copies of motor command signals to various levels of the auditory system. Although such interactions at the cortical level are believed to facilitate auditory comprehension during movements and drive auditory hallucinations in pathological states, the synaptic organization and function of circuitry linking the motor and auditory cortices remain unclear. Here we describe experiments in the mouse that characterize circuitry well suited to transmit motor-related signals to the auditory cortex. Using retrograde viral tracing, we established that neurons in superficial and deep layers of the medial agranular motor cortex (M2) project directly to the auditory cortex and that the axons of some of these deep-layer cells also target brainstem motor regions. Using in vitro whole-cell physiology, optogenetics, and pharmacology, we determined that M2 axons make excitatory synapses in the auditory cortex but exert a primarily suppressive effect on auditory cortical neuron activity mediated in part by feedforward inhibition involving parvalbumin-positive interneurons. Using in vivo intracellular physiology, optogenetics, and sound playback, we also found that directly activating M2 axon terminals in the auditory cortex suppresses spontaneous and stimulus-evoked synaptic activity in auditory cortical neurons and that this effect depends on the relative timing of motor cortical activity and auditory stimulation. These experiments delineate the structural and functional properties of a corticocortical circuit that could enable movement-related suppression of auditory cortical activity.
PMCID: PMC3761045  PMID: 24005287

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