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
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
Kiwi are rare and strictly protected birds of iconic status in New Zealand. Yet, perhaps due to their unusual, nocturnal lifestyle, surprisingly little is known about their behaviour or physiology. In the present study, we exploited known correlations between morphology and physiology in the avian inner ear and brainstem to predict the frequency range of best hearing in the North Island brown kiwi. The mechanosensitive hair bundles of the sensory hair cells in the basilar papilla showed the typical change from tall bundles with few stereovilli to short bundles with many stereovilli along the apical-to-basal tonotopic axis. In contrast to most birds, however, the change was considerably less in the basal half of the epithelium. Dendritic lengths in the brainstem nucleus laminaris also showed the typical change along the tonotopic axis. However, as in the basilar papilla, the change was much less pronounced in the presumed high-frequency regions. Together, these morphological data suggest a fovea-like overrepresentation of a narrow high-frequency band in kiwi. Based on known correlations of hair-cell microanatomy and physiological responses in other birds, a specific prediction for the frequency representation along the basilar papilla of the kiwi was derived. The predicted overrepresentation of approximately 4-6 kHz matches potentially salient frequency bands of kiwi vocalisations and may thus be an adaptation to a nocturnal lifestyle in which auditory communication plays a dominant role.
The midbrain nucleus mesencephalicus lateralis pars dorsalis (MLd) is thought to be the avian homologue of the central nucleus of the mammalian inferior colliculus. As such, it is a major relay in the ascending auditory pathway of all birds and in songbirds mediates the auditory feedback necessary for the learning and maintenance of song. To clarify the organization of MLd, we applied three calcium binding protein antibodies to tissue sections from the brains of adult male and female zebra finches. The staining patterns resulting from the application of parvalbumin, calbindin and calretinin antibodies differed from each other and in different parts of the nucleus. Parvalbumin-like immunoreactivity was distributed throughout the whole nucleus, as defined by the totality of the terminations of brainstem auditory afferents; in other words parvalbumin-like immunoreactivity defines the boundaries of MLd. Staining patterns of parvalbumin, calbindin and calretinin defined two regions of MLd: inner (MLd.I) and outer (MLd.O). MLd.O largely surrounds MLd.I and is distinct from the surrounding intercollicular nucleus. Unlike the case in some non-songbirds, however, the two MLd regions do not correspond to the terminal zones of the projections of the brainstem auditory nuclei angularis and laminaris, which have been found to overlap substantially throughout the nucleus in zebra finches.
Cortical neurons implement a high frequency-specific modulation of subcortical nuclei that includes the cochlear nucleus. Anatomical studies show that corticofugal fibers terminating in the auditory thalamus and midbrain are mostly ipsilateral. Differently, corticofugal fibers terminating in the cochlear nucleus are bilateral, which fits to the needs of binaural hearing that improves hearing quality. This leads to our hypothesis that corticofugal modulation of initial neural processing of sound information from the contralateral and ipsilateral ears could be equivalent or coordinated at the first sound processing level.
With the focal electrical stimulation of the auditory cortex and single unit recording, this study examined corticofugal modulation of the ipsilateral cochlear nucleus. The same methods and procedures as described in our previous study of corticofugal modulation of contralateral cochlear nucleus were employed simply for comparison. We found that focal electrical stimulation of cortical neurons induced substantial changes in the response magnitude, response latency and receptive field of ipsilateral cochlear nucleus neurons. Cortical stimulation facilitated auditory response and shortened the response latency of physiologically matched neurons whereas it inhibited auditory response and lengthened the response latency of unmatched neurons. Finally, cortical stimulation shifted the best frequencies of cochlear neurons towards those of stimulated cortical neurons.
Our data suggest that cortical neurons enable a high frequency-specific remodelling of sound information processing in the ipsilateral cochlear nucleus in the same manner as that in the contralateral cochlear nucleus.
The ability to precisely identify separate neuronal populations is essential to the understanding of the development and function of different brain structures. This necessity is particularly evident in regions such as the brainstem, where the anatomy is quite complex and little is known about the identity, origin, and function of a number of distinct nuclei due to the lack of specific cellular markers. In this regard, the gene encoding the transcription factor Runx1 has emerged as a specific marker of restricted neuronal populations in the murine central and peripheral nervous systems. The aim of this study was to precisely characterize the expression of Runx1 in the developing and postnatal mouse brainstem.
Methods and Principal Findings
Anatomical and immunohistochemical studies were used to characterize mouse Runx1 expression in the brainstem. It is shown here that Runx1 is expressed in a restricted population of neurons located in the dorsolateral rostral hindbrain. These neurons define a structure that is ventromedial to the dorsal nucleus of the lateral lemniscus, dorsocaudal to the medial paralemniscal nucleus and rostral to the cerebellum. Runx1 expression in these cells is first observed at approximately gestational day 12.5, persists into the adult brain, and is lost in knockout mice lacking the transcription factor Atoh1, an important regulator of the development of neuronal lineages of the rhombic lip. Runx1-expressing neurons in the rostral hindbrain produce cholecystokinin and also co-express members of the Groucho/Transducin-like Enhancer of split protein family.
Based on the anatomical and molecular characteristics of the Runx1-expressing cells in the rostral hindbrain, we propose that Runx1 expression in this region of the mouse brain defines the superior lateral parabrachial nucleus.
Birdsong, like human speech, is a series of learned vocal gestures resulting from the coordination of vocal and respiratory brainstem networks under the control of the telencephalon. The song motor circuit includes premotor and motor cortical analogs, known as HVC (used as a proper name) and RA (the robust nucleus of the arcopallium), respectively. Previous studies showed that HVC projects to RA and that RA projection neurons (PNs) topographically innervate brainstem vocal-motor and respiratory networks. The idea that singing-related activity flows between HVC and RA in a strictly feedforward manner is a central component of all models of song production. In contrast to this prevailing view of song motor circuit organization, we show that RA sends a reciprocal projection directly to HVC. Lentiviral labeling of RA PN axons and transgene tagging of RA PN synaptic terminals reveal a direct projection from RA to HVC. Retrograde tracing from HVC demonstrates that this projection originates exclusively from neurons in dorsocaudal regions of RA. Using dual retrograde tracer injections, we further show that many of these RAHVC neurons also innervate the brainstem nucleus retroambigualis, which is premotor to expiratory motoneurons, thereby identifying a population of RA PNs positioned to coordinate activity at higher and lower levels of the song motor circuit. In combination, our findings identify a previously unknown pathway that may enable a subset of RA neurons to provide song-related signals to the respiratory brainstem but also transmit a copy of this information to song patterning networks in HVC.
lentivirus; zebra finch; motor control; anterograde; synaptophysin; vocal learning; songbird; avian
The acoustic rearing environment can alter central auditory coding properties, yet altered neural coding is seldom linked with specific deficits to adult perceptual skills. To test whether developmental hearing loss resulted in comparable changes to perception and sensory coding, we examined behavioral and neural detection thresholds for sinusoidally amplitude modulated (sAM) stimuli. Behavioral sAM detection thresholds for slow (5 Hz) modulations were significantly worse for animals reared with bilateral conductive hearing loss (CHL), as compared to controls. This difference could not be attributed to hearing thresholds, proficiency at the task, or proxies for attention. Detection thresholds across the groups did not differ for fast (100 Hz) modulations, a result paralleling that seen in humans. Neural responses to sAM stimuli were recorded in single auditory cortex neurons from separate groups of awake animals. Neurometric analyses indicated equivalent thresholds for the most sensitive neurons, but a significantly poorer detection threshold for slow modulations across the population of CHL neurons as compared to controls. The magnitude of the neural deficit matched that of the behavioral differences, suggesting that a reduction of sensory information can account for limitations to perceptual skills.
Primary auditory cortex (A1) exhibits a tonotopic representation of characteristic frequency (CF). The receptive field properties of A1 neurons emerge from a combination of thalamic inputs and intracortical connections. However, the mechanisms that guide growth of these inputs during development and shape receptive field properties remain largely unknown. We previously showed that Eph family proteins help establish tonotopy in the auditory brainstem. Moreover, other studies have shown that these proteins shape topography in visual and somatosensory cortices. Here, we examined the contribution of Eph proteins to cortical organization of CF, response thresholds and sharpness of frequency tuning. We examined mice with null mutations in EphB2 and EphB3, as these mice show significant changes in auditory brainstem connectivity. We mapped A1 using local field potential recordings in adult EphB2−/−;EphB3−/− and EphB3−/− mice, and in a central A1 location inserted a 16-channel probe to measure tone-evoked current-source density (CSD) profiles. Based on the shortest-latency current sink in the middle layers, which reflects putative thalamocortical input, we determined frequency receptive fields and sharpness of tuning (Q20) for each recording site. While both mutant mouse lines demonstrated increasing CF values from posterior to anterior A1 similar to wild type mice, we found that the double mutant mice had significantly lower Q20 values than either EphB3−/− mice or wild type mice, indicating broader tuning. In addition, we found that the double mutants had significantly higher CF thresholds and longer onset latency at threshold than mice with wild type EphB2. These results demonstrate that EphB receptors influence auditory cortical responses, and suggest that EphB signaling has multiple functions in auditory system development.
When inner ear hair cells die, humans and other mammals experience permanent hearing and balance deficits, but non-mammalian vertebrates quickly recover these senses after epithelial supporting cells give rise to replacement hair cells. A postnatal decline in cellular plasticity appears to limit regeneration in mammalian balance organs, where declining proliferation responses are correlated with decreased spreading of supporting cells on artificial and native substrates. By culturing balance epithelia on substrates that differed in flexibility, we assessed spreading effects independent of age, showing a strong correlation between shape change and supporting cell proliferation. Then we made excision wounds in utricles cultured from young and old chickens and mice and compared quantified levels of spreading and proliferation. In utricles from young mice, and both young and old chickens, wounds re-epithelialized in <24 hours, while those in utricles from mature mice took three times longer. More cells changed shape in the fastest healing wounds, which accounted for some differences in the levels of proliferation, but inter-species and age-related differences in shape-sensitive restriction points, i.e., the cellular thresholds for shape changes that promote S-phase, were evident and may be particularly influential in the responses to hair cell losses in vivo.
Atelopus franciscus is a diurnal bufonid frog that lives in South-American tropical rain forests. As in many other frogs, males produce calls to defend their territories and attract females. However, this species is a so-called “earless” frog lacking an external tympanum and is thus anatomically deaf. Moreover, A. franciscus has no external vocal sac and lives in a sound constraining environment along river banks where it competes with other calling frogs. Despite these constraints, male A. franciscus reply acoustically to the calls of conspecifics in the field. To resolve this apparent paradox, we studied the vocal apparatus and middle-ear, analysed signal content of the calls, examined sound and signal content propagation in its natural habitat, and performed playback experiments. We show that A. franciscus males can produce only low intensity calls that propagate a short distance (<8 m) as a result of the lack of an external vocal sac. The species-specific coding of the signal is based on the pulse duration, providing a simple coding that is efficient as it allows discrimination from calls of sympatric frogs. Moreover, the signal is redundant and consequently adapted to noisy environments. As such a coding system can be efficient only at short-range, territory holders established themselves at short distances from each other. Finally, we show that the middle-ear of A. franciscus does not present any particular adaptations to compensate for the lack of an external tympanum, suggesting the existence of extra-tympanic pathways for sound propagation.
In the auditory system, the stimulus-response properties of single neurons are often described in terms of the spectrotemporal receptive field (STRF), a linear kernel relating the spectrogram of the sound stimulus to the instantaneous firing rate of the neuron. Several algorithms have been used to estimate STRFs from responses to natural stimuli; these algorithms differ in their functional models, cost functions, and regularization methods. Here, we characterize the stimulus-response function of auditory neurons using a generalized linear model (GLM). In this model, each cell's input is described by: 1) a stimulus filter (STRF); and 2) a post-spike filter, which captures dependencies on the neuron's spiking history. The output of the model is given by a series of spike trains rather than instantaneous firing rate, allowing the prediction of spike train responses to novel stimuli. We fit the model by maximum penalized likelihood to the spiking activity of zebra finch auditory midbrain neurons in response to conspecific vocalizations (songs) and modulation limited (ml) noise. We compare this model to normalized reverse correlation (NRC), the traditional method for STRF estimation, in terms of predictive power and the basic tuning properties of the estimated STRFs. We find that a GLM with a sparse prior predicts novel responses to both stimulus classes significantly better than NRC. Importantly, we find that STRFs from the two models derived from the same responses can differ substantially and that GLM STRFs are more consistent between stimulus classes than NRC STRFs. These results suggest that a GLM with a sparse prior provides a more accurate characterization of spectrotemporal tuning than does the NRC method when responses to complex sounds are studied in these neurons.
In many songbirds the larger vocal repertoire of males is associated with sexual dimorphism of the vocal control centers and muscles of the vocal organ, the syrinx. However, it is largely unknown how these differences are translated into different acoustic behavior.
Here we show that the sound generating structures of the syrinx, the labia and the associated cartilaginous framework, also display sexual dimorphism. One of the bronchial half rings that position and tense the labia is larger in males, and the size and shape of the labia differ between males and females. The functional consequences of these differences were explored by denervating syringeal muscles. After denervation, both sexes produced equally low fundamental frequencies, but the driving pressure generally increased and was higher in males. Denervation strongly affected the relationship between driving pressure and fundamental frequency.
The syringeal modifications in the male syrinx, in concert with dimorphisms in neural control and muscle mass, are most likely the foundation for the potential to generate an enhanced frequency range. Sexually dimorphic vocal behavior therefore arises from finely tuned modifications at every level of the motor cascade. This sexual dimorphism in frequency control illustrates a significant evolutionary step towards increased vocal complexity in birds.