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Transformation of spatial sensitivity along the ascending auditory pathway


Locations of sounds are computed in the central auditory pathway based primarily on differences in sound level and timing at the two ears. In rats, the results of that computation appear in the primary auditory cortex (A1) as exclusively contralateral hemifield spatial sensitivity, with strong responses to sounds contralateral to the recording site, sharp cutoffs across the midline, and weak, sound-level-tolerant responses to ipsilateral sounds. We surveyed the auditory pathway in anesthetized rats to identify the brain level(s) at which level-tolerant spatial sensitivity arises. Noise-burst stimuli were varied in horizontal sound location and in sound level. Neurons in the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICc) displayed contralateral tuning at low sound levels, but tuning was degraded at successively higher sound levels. In contrast, neurons in the nucleus of the brachium of the inferior colliculus (BIN) showed sharp, level-tolerant spatial sensitivity. The ventral division of the medial geniculate body (MGBv) contained two discrete neural populations, one showing broad sensitivity like the ICc and one showing sharp sensitivity like A1. Dorsal, medial, and shell regions of the MGB showed fairly sharp spatial sensitivity, likely reflecting inputs from A1 and/or the BIN. The results demonstrate two parallel brainstem pathways for spatial hearing. The tectal pathway, in which sharp, level-tolerant spatial sensitivity arises between ICc and BIN, projects to the superior colliculus and could support reflexive orientation to sounds. The lemniscal pathway, in which such sensitivity arises between ICc and the MGBv, projects to the forebrain to support perception of sound location.

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