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1.  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
2.  Heterogeneous kinetics and pharmacology of synaptic inhibition in the chick auditory brainstem 
Identification of shared features between avian and mammalian auditory brainstem circuits has provided much insight into the mechanisms underlying early auditory processing. However, previous studies have highlighted an apparent difference in inhibitory systems; synaptic inhibition is thought to be slow and GABAergic in birds, but to have fast kinetics and be predominantly glycinergic in mammals. Using patch-clamp recordings in chick brainstem slices, we found this distinction is not exclusively true. Consistent with previous work, inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs) in nucleus magnocellularis (NM) were slow and mediated by GABAA receptors. However, IPSCs in nucleus laminaris (NL) and a subset of neurons in nucleus angularis (NA) had rapid time courses two to three-fold faster than those in NM. Further, we found IPSCs in NA were mediated by both glycine and GABAA receptors, demonstrating for the first time a role for fast glycinergic transmission in the avian auditory brainstem. Although NM, NL and NA have unique roles in auditory processing, the majority of inhibitory input to each nucleus arises from the same source, ipsilateral superior olivary nucleus (SON). Our results demonstrate remarkable diversity of inhibitory transmission among the avian brainstem nuclei and suggest differential glycine and GABAA receptor activity tailors inhibition to the specific functional roles of NM, NL, and NA despite common SON input. We additionally observed that glycinergic/GABAergic activity in NA was usually depolarizing and could elicit spiking activity in NA neurons. Because NA projects to SON, these excitatory effects may influence the recruitment of inhibitory activity in the brainstem nuclei.
PMCID: PMC2894706  PMID: 19641125
Auditory; GABA; Glycine; Patch Clamp; Inhibition; Synapse
3.  Regulation of glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmission in the chick nucleus laminaris: role of N-type calcium channels 
Neuroscience  2009;164(3):1009-1019.
Neurons in the chicken nucleus laminaris (NL), the third-order auditory nucleus involved in azimuth sound localization, receive bilaterally segregated (ipsilateral vs. contralateral) glutamatergic excitation from the cochlear nucleus magnocellularis and GABAergic inhibition from the ipsilateral superior olivary nucleus. Here, I investigate the voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs) that trigger the excitatory and the inhibitory transmission in the NL. Whole-cell recordings were performed in acute brainstem slices. The excitatory transmission was predominantly mediated by N-type VGCCs, as the specific N-type blocker ω-Conotoxin-GVIA (1-2.5 μM) inhibited excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) by ∼90%. Blockers for P/Q- and L-type VGCCs produced no inhibition, and blockade of R-type VGCCs produced a small inhibition. In individual cells, the effect of each VGCC blocker on the EPSC elicited by activation of the ipsilateral input was the same as that on the EPSC elicited by activation of the contralateral input, and the two EPSCs had similar kinetics, suggesting physiological symmetry between the two glutamatergic inputs to single NL neurons. The inhibitory transmission in NL neurons was almost exclusively mediated by N-type VGCCs, as ω-Conotoxin-GVIA (1 μM) produced a ∼90% reduction of inhibitory postsynaptic currents, whereas blockers for other VGCCs produced no inhibition. In conclusion, N-type VGCCs play a dominant role in triggering both the excitatory and the inhibitory transmission in the NL, and the presynaptic VGCCs that mediate the two bilaterally segregated glutamatergic inputs to individual NL neurons are identical. These features may play a role in optimizing coincidence detection in NL neurons.
PMCID: PMC2784256  PMID: 19751802
voltage-gated calcium channel; excitatory postsynaptic current; inhibitory postsynaptic current; coincidence detection; sound localization
4.  Topography and Morphology of the Inhibitory Projection From Superior Olivary Nucleus to Nucleus Laminaris in Chickens (Gallus gallus) 
The avian nucleus laminaris (NL) is involved in computation of interaural time differences (ITDs) that encode the azimuthal position of a sound source. Neurons in NL are bipolar, with dorsal and ventral dendritic arbors receiving input from separate ears. NL neurons act as coincidence detectors that respond maximally when input from each ear arrives at the two dendritic arbors simultaneously. Computational and physiological studies demonstrated that the sensitivity of NL neurons to coincident inputs is modulated by an inhibitory feedback circuit via the superior olivary nucleus (SON). To understand the mechanism of this modulation, the topography of the projection from SON to NL was mapped, and the morphology of the axon terminals of SON neurons in NL was examined in chickens (Gallus gallus). In vivo injection of AlexaFluor 568 dextran amine into SON demonstrated a coarse topographic projection from SON to NL. Retrogradely labeled neurons in NL were located within the zone of anterogradely labeled terminals, suggesting a reciprocal projection from SON to NL. In vivo extracellular physiological recording further demonstrated that this topography is consistent with tonotopic maps in SON and NL. In addition, three-dimensional reconstruction of single SON axon branches within NL revealed that individual SON neurons innervate a large area of NL and terminate on both dorsal and ventral dendritic arbors of NL neurons. The organization of the projection from SON to NL supports its proposed functions of controlling the overall activity level of NL and enhancing the specificity of frequency mapping and ITD detection.
PMCID: PMC3299086  PMID: 21165979
auditory brainstem; axonal projection; γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA); interaural time difference (ITD); tonotopic organization
5.  Astrocyte-Secreted Factors Modulate the Developmental Distribution of Inhibitory Synapses in Nucleus Laminaris of the Avian Auditory Brainstem 
The Journal of comparative neurology  2012;520(6):1262-1277.
Nucleus laminaris (NL) neurons in the avian auditory brainstem are coincidence detectors necessary for the computation of interaural time differences used in sound localization. In addition to their excitatory inputs from nucleus magnocellularis, NL neurons receive inhibitory inputs from the superior olivary nucleus (SON) that greatly improve coincidence detection in mature animals. The mechanisms that establish mature distributions of inhibitory inputs to NL are not known. We used the vesicular GABA transporter (VGAT) as a marker for inhibitory presynaptic terminals to study the development of inhibitory inputs to NL between embryonic day 9 (E9) and E17. VGAT immunofluorescent puncta were first seen sparsely in NL at E9. The density of VGAT puncta increased with development, first within the ventral NL neuropil region and subsequently throughout both the ventral and dorsal dendritic neuropil, with significantly fewer terminals in the cell body region. A large increase in density occurred between E13–15 and E16–17, at a developmental stage when astrocytes that express glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) become mature. We cultured E13 brainstem slices together with astrocyte-conditioned medium (ACM) obtained from E16 brainstems and found that ACM, but not control medium, increased the density of VGAT puncta. This increase was similar to that observed during normal development. Astrocyte-secreted factors interact with the terminal ends of SON axons to increase the number of GABAergic terminals. These data suggest that factors secreted from GFAP-positive astrocytes promote maturation of inhibitory pathways in the auditory brainstem.
PMCID: PMC3926803  PMID: 22020566
astrocytes; inhibitory synapses; auditory brainstem; nucleus laminaris; synaptogenesis; superior olivary nucleus
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.  Interaural Phase and Level Difference Sensitivity in Low-Frequency Neurons in the Lateral Superior Olive 
The lateral superior olive (LSO) is believed to encode differences in sound level at the two ears, a cue for azimuthal sound location. Most high-frequency-sensitive LSO neurons are binaural, receiving inputs from both ears. An inhibitory input from the contralateral ear, via the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB), and excitatory input from the ipsilateral ear enable level differences to be encoded. However, the classical descriptions of low-frequency-sensitive neurons report primarily monaural cells with no contralateral inhibition. Anatomical and physiological evidence, however, shows that low-frequency LSO neurons receive low-frequency inhibitory input from ipsilateral MNTB, which in turn receives excitatory input from the contralateral cochlear nucleus and low-frequency excitatory input from the ipsilateral cochlear nucleus. Therefore, these neurons would be expected to be binaural with contralateral inhibition. Here, we re-examined binaural interaction in low-frequency (less than ~3 kHz) LSO neurons and phase locking in the MNTB. Phase locking to low-frequency tones in MNTB and ipsilaterally driven LSO neurons with frequency sensitivities < 1.2 kHz was enhanced relative to the auditory nerve. Moreover, most low-frequency LSO neurons exhibited contralateral inhibition: ipsilaterally driven responses were suppressed by raising the level of the contralateral stimulus; most neurons were sensitive to interaural time delays in pure tone and noise stimuli such that inhibition was nearly maximal when the stimuli were presented to the ears in-phase. The data demonstrate that low-frequency LSO neurons of cat are not monaural and can exhibit contralateral inhibition like their high-frequency counterparts.
PMCID: PMC1449742  PMID: 16291937
lateral superior olive; medial nucleus of the trapezoid body; interaural time delay; interaural level difference; sound localization; phase locking
8.  The Medial Nucleus of the Trapezoid Body in the Gerbil Is More Than a Relay: Comparison of Pre- and Postsynaptic Activity  
The medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) plays an important role in the processing of interaural intensity differences, a feature that is critical for the localization of sound sources. It is generally believed that the MNTB functions primarily as a passive relay in converting excitatory input originating from the contralateral cochlear nucleus (CN) into an inhibitory input to the ipsilateral lateral superior olive. However, studies showing that the MNTB itself is also the target of inhibitory input suggest that the MNTB may serve more than a sign-converting function. To examine the fidelity of signal transmission at the CN–MNTB synapse, presynaptic calyceal potentials ("prepotentials"), reflecting the excitatory input to the MNTB neuron, and postsynaptic action potentials were simultaneously monitored with the same electrode during in vivo extracellular recordings from the gerbil's MNTB. Presynaptic activity differed from postsynaptic activity in several respects: (1) Spontaneous and sound-evoked discharge rates were greater presynaptically than postsynaptically. (2) Frequency tuning was sharper postsynaptically than presynaptically. (3) Calyceal terminals and MNTB neurons both showed phasic–tonic response patterns to tonal stimulation, but the duration of the onset response and the level of the tonic component were reduced postsynaptically. (4) Phase-locking to sound frequencies up to 1 kHz was greater postsynaptically than presynaptically. (5) The rate-intensity characteristics of pre- and postsynaptic activities differed significantly from each other in half of the MNTB neurons. To test the hypothesis that acoustically evoked inhibition of MNTB neurons contributed to the relatively lower levels of postsynaptic discharge, two-tone stimulation was applied, wherein the response to one tone-burst, set at the neuron's characteristic frequency, can be reduced by addition of a second "inhibitory" tone. The inhibitory tone caused a much larger reduction in post- than in presynaptic activity, indicating an acoustically evoked inhibitory influence directly on MNTB units. These findings show that transmission at the CN–MNTB synapse does not occur in a fixed one-to-one manner and that the response of MNTB neurons reflects the integration of their excitatory and inhibitory inputs.
PMCID: PMC3202451  PMID: 12098017
9.  Coexistence of Lateral and Co-Tuned Inhibitory Configurations in Cortical Networks 
PLoS Computational Biology  2011;7(10):e1002161.
The responses of neurons in sensory cortex depend on the summation of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic inputs. How the excitatory and inhibitory inputs scale with stimulus depends on the network architecture, which ranges from the lateral inhibitory configuration where excitatory inputs are more narrowly tuned than inhibitory inputs, to the co-tuned configuration where both are tuned equally. The underlying circuitry that gives rise to lateral inhibition and co-tuning is yet unclear. Using large-scale network simulations with experimentally determined connectivity patterns and simulations with rate models, we show that the spatial extent of the input determined the configuration: there was a smooth transition from lateral inhibition with narrow input to co-tuning with broad input. The transition from lateral inhibition to co-tuning was accompanied by shifts in overall gain (reduced), output firing pattern (from tonic to phasic) and rate-level functions (from non-monotonic to monotonically increasing). The results suggest that a single cortical network architecture could account for the extended range of experimentally observed response types between the extremes of lateral inhibitory versus co-tuned configurations.
Author Summary
The cerebral cortex contains a network of electrically active cells (neurons) interconnected by synapses, which may be excitatory (tending to increase activity) or inhibitory. Network activity, i.e., the ensemble of activity patterns of the individual cells, is driven by input from the sense organs, and creates an internal representation of features of the outside world. In auditory cortex, sound frequency (pitch) is encoded by the physical location of activity in the network. Thus, connections among cells at various distances may blur or sharpen the frequency representation. Recent work in living animals has yielded conflicting results: sharpening of responses via lateral inhibition in some cases, versus balanced excitation and inhibition (co-tuning) in others. It was previously unknown whether a single cortical network architecture could account for this spectrum of findings. Here, computer simulations based on experimental data reveal that this is indeed the case. Varying input to the network causes smooth transitions between lateral inhibition and co-tuning, accompanied by changes in the strength and timing of the responses. Diverse input-dependent response patterns in a single network may be a general mechanism enabling the brain to process a wide range of sensory information under various conditions.
PMCID: PMC3188483  PMID: 21998561
10.  Synaptic activity-induced Ca2+ signaling in avian cochlear nucleus magnocellularis neurons 
Neuroscience Research  2011;72(2):129-139.
Neurons of the avian cochlear nucleus magnocellularis (NM) receive glutamatergic inputs from the spiral ganglion cells via the auditory nerve and feedback GABAergic inputs primarily from the superior olivary nucleus. We investigated regulation of Ca2+ signaling in NM neurons with ratiometric Ca2+ imaging in chicken brain slices. Application of exogenous glutamate or GABA increased the intracellular Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i) in NM neurons. Interestingly, GABA-induced Ca2+ responses persisted into neuronal maturation, in both standard and energy substrate enriched artificial cerebrospinal fluid. More importantly, we found that electrical stimulation applied to the glutamatergic and GABAergic afferent fibers innervating the NM was able to elicit transient [Ca2+]i increases in NM neurons, and the amplitude of the Ca2+ responses increased with increasing frequency and duration of the electrical stimulation. Antagonists for ionotropic glutamate receptors significantly blocked these [Ca2+]i increases, whereas blocking GABAA receptors did not affect the Ca2+ responses, suggesting that synaptically released glutamate but not GABA induced the Ca2+ signaling in vitro. Furthermore, activation of GABAA receptors with exogenous agonists inhibited synaptic activity-induced [Ca2+]i increases in NM neurons, suggesting a role of GABAA receptors in the regulation of Ca2+ homeostasis in the avian cochlear nucleus neurons.
PMCID: PMC3312812  PMID: 22134051
auditory; Ca2+ imaging; glutamate receptor; GABA receptor; neuromodulation
11.  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
12.  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
13.  Dynamic temporal signal processing in the inferior colliculus of echolocating bats 
In nature, communication sounds among animal species including humans are typical complex sounds that occur in sequence and vary with time in several parameters including amplitude, frequency, duration as well as separation, and order of individual sounds. Among these multiple parameters, sound duration is a simple but important one that contributes to the distinct spectral and temporal attributes of individual biological sounds. Likewise, the separation of individual sounds is an important temporal attribute that determines an animal's ability in distinguishing individual sounds. Whereas duration selectivity of auditory neurons underlies an animal's ability in recognition of sound duration, the recovery cycle of auditory neurons determines a neuron's ability in responding to closely spaced sound pulses and therefore, it underlies the animal's ability in analyzing the order of individual sounds. Since the multiple parameters of naturally occurring communication sounds vary with time, the analysis of a specific sound parameter by an animal would be inevitably affected by other co-varying sound parameters. This is particularly obvious in insectivorous bats, which rely on analysis of returning echoes for prey capture when they systematically vary the multiple pulse parameters throughout a target approach sequence. In this review article, we present our studies of dynamic variation of duration selectivity and recovery cycle of neurons in the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus of the frequency-modulated bats to highlight the dynamic temporal signal processing of central auditory neurons. These studies use single pulses and three biologically relevant pulse-echo (P-E) pairs with varied duration, gap, and amplitude difference similar to that occurring during search, approach, and terminal phases of hunting by bats. These studies show that most collicular neurons respond maximally to a best tuned sound duration (BD). The sound duration to which these neurons are tuned correspond closely to the behaviorally relevant sounds occurring at different phases of hunting. The duration selectivity of these collicular neurons progressively increases with decrease in the duration of pulse and echo, P-E gap, and P-E amplitude difference. GABAergic inhibition plays an important role in shaping the duration selectivity of these collicular neurons. The duration selectivity of these neurons is systematically organized along the tonotopic axis of the inferior colliculus and is closely correlated with the graded spatial distribution of GABAA receptors. Duration-selective collicular neurons have a wide range of recovery cycle covering the P-E intervals occurring throughout the entire target approaching sequences. Collicular neurons with low best frequency and short BD recover rapidly when stimulated with P-E pairs with short duration and small P-E amplitude difference, whereas neurons with high best frequency and long BD recover rapidly when stimulated with P-E pairs with long duration and large P-E amplitude difference. This dynamic variation of echo duration selectivity and recovery cycle of collicular neurons may serve as the neural basis underlying successful hunting by bats. Conceivably, high best frequency neurons with long BD would be suitable for echo recognition during search and approach phases of hunting when the returning echoes are high in frequency, large in P-E amplitude difference, long in duration but low in repetition rate. Conversely, low best frequency neurons with shorter BD and sharper duration selectivity would be suitable for echo recognition during the terminal phase of hunting when the highly repetitive echoes are low in frequency, small in P-E amplitude difference, and short in duration. Furthermore, the tonotopically organized duration selectivity would make it possible to facilitate the recruitment of different groups of collicular neurons along the tonotopic axis for effective processing of the returning echoes throughout the entire course of hunting.
PMCID: PMC3347223  PMID: 22586374
duration selectivity; echolocation; inferior colliculus; pulse-echo pairs; recovery cycle; temporal signal processing
14.  Asymmetric Excitatory Synaptic Dynamics Underlie Interaural Time Difference Processing in the Auditory System 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(6):e1000406.
In order to localize sounds in the environment, the auditory system detects and encodes differences in signals between each ear. The exquisite sensitivity of auditory brain stem neurons to the differences in rise time of the excitation signals from the two ears allows for neuronal encoding of microsecond interaural time differences.
Low-frequency sound localization depends on the neural computation of interaural time differences (ITD) and relies on neurons in the auditory brain stem that integrate synaptic inputs delivered by the ipsi- and contralateral auditory pathways that start at the two ears. The first auditory neurons that respond selectively to ITD are found in the medial superior olivary nucleus (MSO). We identified a new mechanism for ITD coding using a brain slice preparation that preserves the binaural inputs to the MSO. There was an internal latency difference for the two excitatory pathways that would, if left uncompensated, position the ITD response function too far outside the physiological range to be useful for estimating ITD. We demonstrate, and support using a biophysically based computational model, that a bilateral asymmetry in excitatory post-synaptic potential (EPSP) slopes provides a robust compensatory delay mechanism due to differential activation of low threshold potassium conductance on these inputs and permits MSO neurons to encode physiological ITDs. We suggest, more generally, that the dependence of spike probability on rate of depolarization, as in these auditory neurons, provides a mechanism for temporal order discrimination between EPSPs.
Author Summary
Animals can locate the source of a sound by detecting microsecond differences in the arrival time of sound at the two ears. Neurons encoding these interaural time differences (ITDs) receive an excitatory synaptic input from each ear. They can perform a microsecond computation with excitatory synapses that have millisecond time scale because they are extremely sensitive to the input's “rise time,” the time taken to reach the peak of the synaptic input. Current theories assume that the biophysical properties of the two inputs are identical. We challenge this assumption by showing that the rise times of excitatory synaptic potentials driven by the ipsilateral ear are faster than those driven by the contralateral ear. Further, we present a computational model demonstrating that this disparity in rise times, together with the neurons' sensitivity to excitation's rise time, can endow ITD-encoding with microsecond resolution in the biologically relevant range. Our analysis also resolves a timing mismatch. The difference between contralateral and ipsilateral latencies is substantially larger than the relevant ITD range. We show how the rise time disparity compensates for this mismatch. Generalizing, we suggest that phasic-firing neurons—those that respond to rapidly, but not to slowly, changing stimuli—are selective to the temporal ordering of brief inputs. In a coincidence-detection computation the neuron will respond more robustly when a faster input leads a slower one, even if the inputs are brief and have similar amplitudes.
PMCID: PMC2893945  PMID: 20613857
15.  Adaptation of Firing Rate and Spike Timing Precision in the Avian Cochlear Nucleus 
Adaptation is commonly defined as a decrease in response to a constant stimulus. In the auditory system such adaptation is seen at multiple levels. However, the first-order central neurons of the interaural time difference (ITD) detection circuit encode information in the timing of spikes rather than the overall firing rate. We investigated adaptation during in vitro whole-cell recordings from chick nucleus magnocellularis (NM) neurons. Injection of noisy, depolarizing current caused an increase in firing rate and a decrease in spike time precision that developed over approximately 20 seconds. This adaptation depends on sustained depolarization, is independent of firing, and is eliminated by α-Dendrotoxin (0.1 μM) implicating slow inactivation of low-threshold voltage-activated K+ channels as its mechanism. This process may alter both firing rate and spike timing precision of phase-locked inputs to coincidence detector neurons in nucleus laminaris and thereby adjust the precision of sound localization.
PMCID: PMC2693385  PMID: 19005056
sound localization; nucleus magnocellularis; potassium channel; phase-locking; spike-timing precision; coincidence detection
16.  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
17.  Glycinergic transmission modulates GABAergic inhibition in the avian auditory pathway 
For all neurons, a proper balance of synaptic excitation and inhibition is crucial to effect computational precision. Achievement of this balance is remarkable when one considers factors that modulate synaptic strength operate on multiple overlapping time scales and affect both pre- and postsynaptic elements. Recent studies have shown that inhibitory transmitters, glycine and GABA, are co-released in auditory nuclei involved in the computation of interaural time disparities (ITDs), a cue used to process sound source location. The co-release expressed at these synapses is heavily activity dependent, and generally occurs when input rates are high. This circuitry, in both birds and mammals, relies on inhibitory input to maintain the temporal precision necessary for ITD encoding. Studies of co-release in other brain regions suggest that GABA and glycine receptors (GlyRs) interact via cross-suppressive modulation of receptor conductance. We performed in vitro whole-cell recordings in several nuclei of the chicken brainstem auditory circuit to assess whether this cross-suppressive phenomenon was evident in the avian brainstem. We evaluated the effect of pressure-puff applied glycine on synaptically evoked inhibitory currents in nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and the superior olivary nucleus (SON). Glycine pre-application reduced the amplitude of inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs) evoked during a 100 Hz train stimulus in both nuclei. This apparent glycinergic modulation was blocked in the presence of strychnine. Further experiments showed that this modulation did not depend on postsynaptic biochemical interactions such as phosphatase activity, or direct interactions between GABA and GlyR proteins. Rather, voltage clamp experiments in which we manipulated Cl− flux during agonist application suggest that activation of one receptor will modulate the conductance of the other via local changes in Cl− ion concentration within microdomains of the postsynaptic membrane.
PMCID: PMC3954080  PMID: 24672432
glycine; GABA; inhibition; cross-suppression; interaural time disparities
18.  Adaptation of spike timing precision controls the sensitivity to interaural time difference in the avian auditory brainstem 
While adaptation is widely thought to facilitate neural coding, the form of adaptation should depend on how the signals are encoded. Monaural neurons early in the interaural time difference (ITD) pathway encode the phase of sound input using spike timing rather than firing rate. Such neurons in chicken nucleus magnocellularis (NM) adapt to ongoing stimuli by increasing firing rate and decreasing spike timing precision. We measured NM neuron responses while adapting them to simulated physiological input, and used these responses to construct inputs to binaural coincidence detector neurons in nucleus laminaris (NL). Adaptation of spike timing in NM reduced ITD sensitivity in NL, demonstrating the dominant role of timing in the short-term plasticity as well as the immediate response of this sound localization circuit.
PMCID: PMC3518488  PMID: 23115186
19.  Parallel Midbrain Microcircuits Perform Independent Temporal Transformations 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2014;34(24):8130-8138.
The capacity to select the most important information and suppress distracting information is crucial for survival. The midbrain contains a network critical for the selection of the strongest stimulus for gaze and attention. In avians, the optic tectum (OT; called the superior colliculus in mammals) and the GABAergic nucleus isthmi pars magnocellularis (Imc) cooperate in the selection process. In the chicken, OT layer 10, located in intermediate layers, responds to afferent input with gamma periodicity (25–75 Hz), measured at the level of individual neurons and the local field potential. In contrast, Imc neurons, which receive excitatory input from layer 10 neurons, respond with tonic, unusually high discharge rates (>150 spikes/s). In this study, we reveal the source of this high-rate inhibitory activity: layer 10 neurons that project to the Imc possess specialized biophysical properties that enable them to transform afferent drive into high firing rates (∼130 spikes/s), whereas neighboring layer 10 neurons, which project elsewhere, transform afferent drive into lower-frequency, periodic discharge patterns. Thus, the intermediate layers of the OT contain parallel, intercalated microcircuits that generate different temporal patterns of activity linked to the functions of their respective downstream targets.
PMCID: PMC4051971  PMID: 24920618
attention; colliculus; decision; inhibition; tectum
20.  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
21.  Synaptic and Intrinsic Activation of GABAergic Neurons in the Cardiorespiratory Brainstem Network 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36459.
GABAergic pathways in the brainstem play an essential role in respiratory rhythmogenesis and interactions between the respiratory and cardiovascular neuronal control networks. However, little is known about the identity and function of these GABAergic inhibitory neurons and what determines their activity. In this study we have identified a population of GABAergic neurons in the ventrolateral medulla that receive increased excitatory post-synaptic potentials during inspiration, but also have spontaneous firing in the absence of synaptic input. Using transgenic mice that express GFP under the control of the Gad1 (GAD67) gene promoter, we determined that this population of GABAergic neurons is in close apposition to cardioinhibitory parasympathetic cardiac neurons in the nucleus ambiguus (NA). These neurons fire in synchronization with inspiratory activity. Although they receive excitatory glutamatergic synaptic inputs during inspiration, this excitatory neurotransmission was not altered by blocking nicotinic receptors, and many of these GABAergic neurons continue to fire after synaptic blockade. The spontaneous firing in these GABAergic neurons was not altered by the voltage-gated calcium channel blocker cadmium chloride that blocks both neurotransmission to these neurons and voltage-gated Ca2+ currents, but spontaneous firing was diminished by riluzole, demonstrating a role of persistent sodium channels in the spontaneous firing in these cardiorespiratory GABAergic neurons that possess a pacemaker phenotype. The spontaneously firing GABAergic neurons identified in this study that increase their activity during inspiration would support respiratory rhythm generation if they acted primarily to inhibit post-inspiratory neurons and thereby release inspiration neurons to increase their activity. This population of inspiratory-modulated GABAergic neurons could also play a role in inhibiting neurons that are most active during expiration and provide a framework for respiratory sinus arrhythmia as there is an increase in heart rate during inspiration that occurs via inhibition of premotor parasympathetic cardioinhibitory neurons in the NA during inspiration.
PMCID: PMC3343022  PMID: 22570717
22.  The Multiple Functions of T Stellate/Multipolar/Chopper Cells in the Ventral Cochlear Nucleus 
Hearing research  2010;276(1-2):61-69.
Acoustic information is brought to the brain by auditory nerve fibers, all of which terminate in the cochlear nuclei, and is passed up the auditory pathway through the principal cells of the cochlear nuclei. A population of neurons variously known as T stellate, type I multipolar, planar multipolar, or chopper cells forms one of the major ascending auditory pathways through the brain stem. T Stellate cells are sharply tuned; as a population they encode the spectrum of sounds. In these neurons, phasic excitation from the auditory nerve is made more tonic by feed forward excitation, coactivation of inhibitory with excitatory inputs, relatively large excitatory currents through NMDA receptors, and relatively little synaptic depression. The mechanisms that make firing tonic also obscure the fine structure of sounds that is represented in the excitatory inputs from the auditory nerve and account for the characteristic chopping response patterns with which T stellate cells respond to tones. In contrast with other principal cells of the ventral cochlear nucleus (VCN), T stellate cells lack a low-voltage-activated potassium conductance and are therefore sensitive to small, steady, neuromodulating currents. The presence of cholinergic, serotonergic and noradrenergic receptors allows the excitability of these cells to be modulated by medial olivocochlear efferent neurons and by neuronal circuits associated with arousal. T Stellate cells deliver acoustic information to the ipsilateral dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN), ventral nucleus of the trapezoid body (VNTB), periolivary regions around the lateral superior olivary nucleus (LSO), and to the contralateral ventral lemniscal nuclei (VNLL) and inferior colliculus (IC). It is likely that T stellate cells participate in feedback loops through both medial and lateral olivocochlear efferent neurons and they may be a source of ipsilateral excitation of the LSO.
PMCID: PMC3078527  PMID: 21056098
ventral cochlear nucleus; brainstem auditory pathways; ion channels; patch-clamp recording
23.  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
24.  Tonotopic Organization of the Superior Olivary Nucleus in the Chicken Auditory Brainstem 
The Journal of comparative neurology  2012;520(7):1493-1508.
Topographic maps are salient features of neuronal organization in sensory systems. Inhibitory components of neuronal circuitry are often embedded within this organization, making them difficult to isolate experimentally. The auditory system provides opportunities to study the topographic organization of inhibitory long-range projection nuclei, such as the superior olivary nucleus (SON). We analyzed the topographic organization of response features of neurons in the SON of chickens. Quantitative methods were developed to assess and communicate this organization. These analyses led to three main conclusions: 1) sound frequency is linearly arranged from dorsal (low frequencies) to ventral (high frequencies) in SON; 2) this tonotopic organization is less precise than the organization of the excitatory nuclei in the chicken auditory brainstem; and 3) neurons with different response patterns to pure tone stimuli are interspersed throughout the SON and show similar tonotopic organizations. This work provides a predictive model to determine the optimal stimulus frequency for a neuron from its spatial location in the SON.
PMCID: PMC4033909  PMID: 22102107
auditory; inhibitory; superior olivary nucleus; three-dimensional tonotopic organization
25.  Differential Conduction Velocity Regulation in Ipsilateral and Contralateral Collaterals Innervating Brainstem Coincidence Detector Neurons 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2014;34(14):4914-4919.
Information processing in the brain relies on precise timing of signal propagation. The highly conserved neuronal network for computing spatial representations of acoustic signals resolves microsecond timing of sounds processed by the two ears. As such, it provides an excellent model for understanding how precise temporal regulation of neuronal signals is achieved and maintained. The well described avian and mammalian brainstem circuit for computation of interaural time differences is composed of monaural cells in the cochlear nucleus (CN; nucleus magnocellularis in birds) projecting to binaurally innervated coincidence detection neurons in the medial superior olivary nucleus (MSO) in mammals or nucleus laminaris (NL) in birds. Individual axons from CN neurons issue a single axon that bifurcates into an ipsilateral branch and a contralateral branch that innervate segregated dendritic regions of the MSO/NL coincidence detector neurons. We measured conduction velocities of the ipsilateral and contralateral branches of these bifurcating axon collaterals in the chicken by antidromic stimulation of two sites along each branch and whole-cell recordings in the parent neurons. At the end of each experiment, the individual CN neuron and its axon collaterals were filled with dye. We show that the two collaterals of a single axon adjust the conduction velocities individually to achieve the specific conduction velocities essential for precise temporal integration of information from the two ears, as required for sound localization. More generally, these results suggest that individual axonal segments in the CNS interact locally with surrounding neural structures to determine conduction velocity.
PMCID: PMC3972718  PMID: 24695710
conduction velocity regulation; myelin plasticity; sound localization

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