The robust representation of the environment from unreliable sensory cues is vital for the efficient function of the brain. However, how the neural processing captures the most reliable cues is unknown. The interaural time difference (ITD) is the primary cue to localize sound in horizontal space. ITD is encoded in the firing rate of neurons that detect interaural phase difference (IPD). Due to the filtering effect of the head, IPD for a given location varies depending on the environmental context. We found that, in barn owls, at each location there is a frequency range where the head filtering yields the most reliable IPDs across contexts. Remarkably, the frequency tuning of space-specific neurons in the owl's midbrain varies with their preferred sound location, matching the range that carries the most reliable IPD. Thus, frequency tuning in the owl's space-specific neurons reflects a higher-order feature of the code that captures cue reliability.
The ability to locate where a sound is coming from is an essential survival skill for both prey and predator species. A major cue used by the brain to infer the sound's location is the difference in arrival time of the sound at the left and right ears; for example, a sound coming from the left side will reach the left ear before the right ear.
We are exposed to a variety of sounds of different intensities (loud or soft), and pitch (high or low) emitted from many different directions. The cacophony that surrounds us makes it a challenge to detect where individual sounds come from because other sounds from different directions corrupt the signals coming from the target. This background noise can profoundly affect the reliability of the sensory cue.
When sounds reach the ears, the head and external ears transform the sound in a direction-dependent manner so that some pitches are amplified more than other pitches for specific directions. However, the consequence of this filtering is that the directional information about a sound may be altered. For example, if two sounds of a similar pitch but from different locations are heard at the same time, they will add up at the ears and change the directional information. The group of neurons that respond to that range of pitches will be activated by both sounds so they cannot provide reliable information about the direction of the individual sounds. The degree to which the directional information is altered depends on the pitch that is being detected by the neurons; therefore detection of a different pitch within the sound may be a more reliable cue.
Cazettes et al. used the known filtering properties of the owl's head to predict the reliability of the timing cue for sounds coming from different directions in a noisy environment. This analysis showed that for each direction, there was a range of pitches that carried the most reliable cues. The study then focused on whether the neurons that represent hearing space in the owl's brain were sensitive to this range.
The experiments found a remarkable correlation between the pitch preferred by each neuron and the range that carried the most reliable cue for each direction. This finding challenges the common view of sensory neurons as simple processors by showing that they are also selective to high-order properties relating to the reliability of the cue.
Besides selecting the cues that are likely to be the most reliable, the brain must capture changes in the reliability of the sensory cues. In addition, this reliability must be incorporated into the information carried by neurons and used when deciding how best to act in uncertain situations. Future research will be required to unravel how the brain does this.