Many animals use the interaural time differences (ITDs) to locate the source of low frequency sounds. The place coding theory proposed by Jeffress has long been a dominant model to account for the neural mechanisms of ITD detection. Recent research, however, suggests a wider range of strategies for ITD coding in the binaural auditory brainstem. We discuss how ITD is coded in avian, mammalian, and reptilian nervous systems, and review underlying synaptic and cellular properties that enable precise temporal computation. The latest advances in recording and analysis techniques provide powerful tools for both overcoming and utilizing the large field potentials in these nuclei.
The position of testudines in vertebrate phylogeny is being re-evaluated. At present, testudine morphological and molecular data conflict when reconstructing phylogenetic relationships. Complicating matters, the ecological niche of stem testudines is ambiguous. To understand how turtles have evolved to hear in different environments, we examined middle ear morphology and scaling in most extant families, as well as some extinct species, using 3-dimensional reconstructions from micro magnetic resonance (MR) and submillimeter computed tomography (CT) scans. All families of testudines exhibited a similar shape of the bony structure of the middle ear cavity, with the tympanic disk located on the rostrolateral edge of the cavity. Sea Turtles have additional soft tissue that fills the middle ear cavity to varying degrees. When the middle ear cavity is modeled as an air-filled sphere of the same volume resonating in an underwater sound field, the calculated resonances for the volumes of the middle ear cavities largely fell within testudine hearing ranges. Although there were some differences in morphology, there were no statistically significant differences in the scaling of the volume of the bony middle ear cavity with head size among groups when categorized by phylogeny and ecology. Because the cavity is predicted to resonate underwater within the testudine hearing range, the data support the hypothesis of an aquatic origin for testudines, and function of the middle ear cavity in underwater sound detection.
Geckos use vocalizations for intraspecific communication, but little is known about the organization of their central auditory system. We therefore used antibodies against the calcium-binding proteins calretinin (CR), parvalbumin (PV), and calbindin-D28k (CB) to characterize the gecko auditory system. We also examined expression of both glutamic acid decarboxlase (GAD) and synaptic vesicle protein (SV2). Western blots showed that these antibodies are specific to gecko brain. All three calcium-binding proteins were expressed in the auditory nerve, and CR immunoreactivity labeled the first-order nuclei and delineated the terminal fields associated with the ascending projections from the first-order auditory nuclei. PV expression characterized the superior olivary nuclei, whereas GAD immunoreactivity characterized many neurons in the nucleus of the lateral lemniscus and some neurons in the torus semicircularis. In the auditory midbrain, the distribution of CR, PV, and CB characterized divisions within the central nucleus of the torus semicircularis. All three calcium-binding proteins were expressed in nucleus medialis of the thalamus. These expression patterns are similar to those described for other vertebrates.
cochlear nucleus; magnocellularis; laminaris; angularis; torus
The auditory systems of birds and mammals use timing information from each ear to detect interaural time difference (ITD). To determine whether the Jeffress-type algorithms that underlie sensitivity to ITD in birds are an evolutionarily stable strategy, we recorded from the auditory nuclei of crocodilians, who are the sister group to the birds. In alligators, precisely timed spikes in the first-order nucleus magnocellularis (NM) encode the timing of sounds, and NM neurons project to neurons in the nucleus laminaris (NL) that detect interaural time differences. In vivo recordings from NL neurons show that the arrival time of phase-locked spikes differs between the ipsilateral and contralateral inputs. When this disparity is nullified by their best ITD, the neurons respond maximally. Thus NL neurons act as coincidence detectors. A biologically detailed model of NL with alligator parameters discriminated ITDs up to 1 kHz. The range of best ITDs represented in NL was much larger than in birds, however, and extended from 0 to 1000 μs contralateral, with a median ITD of 450 μs. Thus, crocodilians and birds employ similar algorithms for ITD detection, although crocodilians have larger heads.
Turtles, like other amphibious animals, face a trade-off between terrestrial and aquatic hearing. We used laser vibrometry and auditory brainstem responses to measure their sensitivity to vibration stimuli and to airborne versus underwater sound. Turtles are most sensitive to sound underwater, and their sensitivity depends on the large middle ear, which has a compliant tympanic disc attached to the columella. Behind the disc, the middle ear is a large air-filled cavity with a volume of approximately 0.5 ml and a resonance frequency of approximately 500 Hz underwater. Laser vibrometry measurements underwater showed peak vibrations at 500–600 Hz with a maximum of 300 µm s−1 Pa−1, approximately 100 times more than the surrounding water. In air, the auditory brainstem response audiogram showed a best sensitivity to sound of 300–500 Hz. Audiograms before and after removing the skin covering reveal that the cartilaginous tympanic disc shows unchanged sensitivity, indicating that the tympanic disc, and not the overlying skin, is the key sound receiver. If air and water thresholds are compared in terms of sound intensity, thresholds in water are approximately 20–30 dB lower than in air. Therefore, this tympanic ear is specialized for underwater hearing, most probably because sound-induced pulsations of the air in the middle ear cavity drive the tympanic disc.
underwater sound; evolution; cochlea; auditory brainstem response
Increases in the size of the neuronal structures that mediate specific behaviors are believed to be related to enhanced computational performance. It is not clear, however, what developmental and evolutionary mechanisms mediate these changes, nor whether an increase in the size of a given neuronal population is a general mechanism to achieve enhanced computational ability. We addressed the issue of size by analyzing the variation in the relative number of cells of auditory structures in auditory specialists and generalists. We show that bird species with different auditory specializations exhibit variation in the relative size of their hindbrain auditory nuclei. In the barn owl, an auditory specialist, the hind-brain auditory nuclei involved in the computation of sound location show hyperplasia. This hyperplasia was also found in songbirds, but not in non-auditory specialists. The hyperplasia of auditory nuclei was also not seen in birds with large body weight suggesting that the total number of cells is selected for in auditory specialists. In barn owls, differences observed in the relative size of the auditory nuclei might be attributed to modifications in neurogenesis and cell death. Thus, hyperplasia of circuits used for auditory computation accompanies auditory specialization in different orders of birds.
Evolution; Auditory; Neuronal computation; Birds; Allometry
N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunit-specific probes were used to characterize developmental changes in the distribution of excitatory amino acid receptors in the chicken’s auditory brainstem nuclei. Although NR1 subunit expression does not change greatly during the development of the cochlear nuclei in the chicken (Tang and Carr  Hear. Res 191:79–89), there are significant developmental changes in NR2 subunit expression. We used in situ hybridization against NR1, NR2A, NR2B, NR2C, and NR2D to compare NR1 and NR2 expression during development. All five NMDA subunits were expressed in the auditory brainstem before embryonic day (E) 10, when electrical activity and synaptic responses appear in the nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and the nucleus laminaris (NL). At this time, the dominant form of the receptor appeared to contain NR1 and NR2B. NR2A appeared to replace NR2B by E14, a time that coincides with synaptic refinement and evoked auditory responses. NR2C did not change greatly during auditory development, whereas NR2D increased from E10 and remained at fairly high levels into adulthood. Thus changes in NMDA NR2 receptor subunits may contribute to the development of auditory brainstem responses in the chick.
cochlear nucleus; magnocellularis; laminaris; angularis; tonotopic gradient
Tympanic hearing is a true evolutionary novelty that appears to have developed independently in at least five major tetrapod groups—the anurans, turtles, lepidosaurs, archosaurs and mammals. The emergence of a tympanic ear would have increased the frequency range and sensitivity of hearing. Furthermore, tympana were acoustically coupled through the mouth cavity and therefore inherently directional in a certain frequency range, acting as pressure difference receivers. In some lizard species, this acoustical coupling generates a 50-fold directional difference, usually at relatively high frequencies (2–4 kHz).
In ancestral atympanate tetrapods, we hypothesize that low-frequency sound may have been processed by non-tympanic mechanisms like those in extant amphibians. The subsequent emergence of tympanic hearing would have led to changes in the central auditory processing of both high-frequency sound and directional hearing. These changes should reflect the independent origin of the tympanic ears in the major tetrapod groups. The processing of low-frequency sound, however, may have been more conserved, since the acoustical coupling of the ancestral tympanate ear probably produced little sensitivity and directionality at low frequencies. Therefore, tetrapod auditory processing may originally have been organized into low- and high-frequency streams, where only the high-frequency processing was mediated by tympanic input.
The closure of the middle ear cavity in mammals and some birds is a derived condition, and may have profoundly changed the operation of the ear by decoupling the tympana, improving the low-frequency response of the tympanum, and leading to a requirement for additional neural computation of directionality in the central nervous system. We propose that these specializations transformed the low- and high-frequency streams into time and intensity pathways, respectively.
Middle ear; Tympanum; Lizard; Frog; Hearing; Auditory; Brain stem
In the barn owl, maps of interaural time difference (ITD) are created in the nucleus laminaris (NL) by interdigitating axons that act as delay lines. Adult delay line axons are myelinated, and this myelination is timely, coinciding with the attainment of adult head size, and stable ITD cues. The proximal portions of the axons become myelinated in late embryonic life, but the delay line portions of the axon in NL remain unmyelinated until the first postnatal week. Myelination of the delay lines peaks at the third week posthatch, and myelinating oligodendrocyte density approaches adult levels by one month, when the head reaches its adult width. Migration of oligodendrocyte progenitors into NL and the subsequent onset of myelination may be restricted by a glial barrier in late embryonic stages and the first posthatch week, since the loss of tenascin-C immunoreactivity in NL is correlated with oligodendrocyte progenitor migration into NL.
auditory delay lines; nucleus laminaris; myelination; oligodendrocyte progenitor migration; tenascin-C
A biologically detailed model of the binaural avian nucleus laminaris is constructed, as a two-dimensional array of multicompartment, conductance-based neurons, along tonotopic and interaural time delay (ITD) axes. The model is based primarily on data from chick nucleus laminaris. Typical chick-like parameters perform ITD discrimination up to 2 kHz, and enhancements for barn owl perform ITD discrimination up to 6 kHz. The dendritic length gradient of NL is explained concisely. The response to binaural out-of-phase input is suppressed well below the response to monaural input (without any spontaneous activity on the opposite side), implicating active potassium channels as crucial to good ITD discrimination.
The auditory system encodes time with sub-millisecond accuracy. To shed new light on the basic mechanism underlying this precise temporal neuronal coding, we analyzed the neurophonic potential, a characteristic multiunit response, in the barn owl’s nucleus laminaris. We report here that the relative time measure of phase delay is robust against changes in sound level, with a precision sharper than 20 µs. Absolute measures of delay, such as group delay or signal-front delay, had much greater temporal jitter, for example due to their strong dependence on sound level. Our findings support the hypothesis that phase delay underlies the sub-millisecond precision of the representation of interaural time difference needed for sound localization.
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.
chicken; barn owl; ontogeny; time coding; outward current; high threshold
N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunit-specific probes were used to characterize developmental changes in the distribution of excitatory amino acid receptors in the chicken’s auditory brainstem nuclei. Although NR1 subunit expression does not change greatly during the development of the cochlear nuclei in the chicken (Tang and Carr  Hear. Res 191:79 – 89), there are significant developmental changes in NR2 subunit expression. We used in situ hybridization against NR1, NR2A, NR2B, NR2C, and NR2D to compare NR1 and NR2 expression during development. All five NMDA subunits were expressed in the auditory brainstem before embryonic day (E) 10, when electrical activity and synaptic responses appear in the nucleus magnocellularis (NM) and the nucleus laminaris (NL). At this time, the dominant form of the receptor appeared to contain NR1 and NR2B. NR2A appeared to replace NR2B by E14, a time that coincides with synaptic refinement and evoked auditory responses. NR2C did not change greatly during auditory development, whereas NR2D increased from E10 and remained at fairly high levels into adulthood. Thus changes in NMDA NR2 receptor subunits may contribute to the development of auditory brainstem responses in the chick.
cochlear nucleus; magnocellularis; laminaris; angularis; tonotopic gradient
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.
avian development; morphogenesis; auditory; laminaris; evolution; interaural time difference
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.
Although ears capable of detecting airborne sound have arisen repeatedly and independently in different species, most animals that are capable of hearing have a pair of ears. We review the advantages that arise from having two ears and discuss recent research on the similarities and differences in the binaural processing strategies adopted by birds and mammals. We also ask how these different adaptations for binaural and spatial hearing might inform and inspire the development of techniques for future auditory prosthetic devices.
Animals, including humans, use interaural time differences (ITDs) that arise from different sound path lengths to the two ears as a cue of horizontal sound source location. The nature of the neural code for ITD is still controversial. Current models differentiate between two population codes: either a map-like rate-place code of ITD along an array of neurons, consistent with a large body of data in the barn owl, or a population rate code, consistent with data from small mammals. Recently, it was proposed that these different codes reflect optimal coding strategies that depend on head size and sound frequency. The chicken makes an excellent test case of this proposal because its physical pre-requisites are similar to small mammals, yet it shares a more recent common ancestry with the owl. We show here that, like in the barn owl, the brainstem nucleus laminaris in mature chickens displayed the major features of a place code of ITD. ITD was topographically represented in the maximal responses of neurons along each isofrequency band, covering approximately the contralateral acoustic hemisphere. Furthermore, the represented ITD range appeared to change with frequency, consistent with a pressure gradient receiver mechanism in the avian middle ear. At very low frequencies, below400 Hz, maximal neural responses were symmetrically distributed around zero ITD and it remained unclear whether there was a topographic representation. These findings do not agree with the above predictions for optimal coding and thus revive the discussion as to what determines the neural coding strategies for ITDs.
Auditory; Hearing; Sound localization; Sensory
In the auditory system, precise encoding of temporal information is critical for sound localization, a task with direct behavioral relevance. Interaural timing differences are computed using axonal delay lines and cellular coincidence detectors in nucleus laminaris (NL). We present morphological and physiological data on the timing circuits in the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae, and compare these results with those from the barn owl (Tyto alba) and the domestic chick (Gallus gallus). Emu NL was composed of a compact monolayer of bitufted neurons whose two thick primary dendrites were oriented dorsoventrally. They showed a gradient in dendritic length along the presumed tonotopic axis. The NL and nucleus magnocellularis (NM) neurons were strongly immunoreactive for parvalbumin, a calcium-binding protein. Antibodies against synaptic vesicle protein 2 and glutamic acid decarboxlyase revealed that excitatory synapses terminated heavily on the dendritic tufts, while inhibitory terminals were distributed more uniformly. Physiological recordings from brainstem slices demonstrated contralateral delay lines from NM to NL. During whole-cell patch-clamp recordings, NM and NL neurons fired single spikes and were doubly-rectifying. NL and NM neurons had input resistances of 30.0 ± 19.9 MΩ and 49.0 ± 25.6 MΩ, respectively, and membrane time constants of 12.8 ± 3.8 ms and 3.9 ± 0.2 ms. These results provide further support for the Jeffress model for sound localization in birds. The emu timing circuits showed the ancestral (plesiomorphic) pattern in their anatomy and physiology, while differences in dendritic structure compared to chick and owl may indicate specialization for encoding ITDs at low best frequencies.
avian; nucleus laminaris; nucleus magnocellularis; dendrite; coincidence detection; sound localization
This Primer focuses on detection of the small interaural time differences that underlie sound localization.
Phase-locked spikes in various types of neurons encode temporal information. To quantify the degree of phase-locking, the metric called vector strength (VS) has been most widely used. Since VS is derived from spike timing information, error in measurement of spike occurrence should result in errors in VS calculation. In electrophysiological experiments, the timing of an action potential is detected with finite temporal precision, which is determined by the sampling frequency. In order to evaluate the effects of the sampling frequency on the measurement of VS, we derive theoretical upper and lower bounds of VS from spikes collected with finite sampling rates. We next estimate errors in VS assuming random sampling effects, and show that our theoretical calculation agrees with data from electrophysiological recordings in vivo. Our results provide a practical guide for choosing the appropriate sampling frequency in measuring VS.
vector strength; phase-locking; auditory brainstem; sound localization; temporal coding; circular statistics