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Researchers pinpoint brain mechanisms that make the auditory system sensitive to behaviorally relevant sounds

Posted April 2, 2013

How do we hear? More specifically, how does the auditory center of the brain discern important sounds – such as communication from members of the same species – from relatively irrelevant background noise? The answer depends on the regulation of sound by specific neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain, but the precise mechanisms of those neurons have remained unclear. Now, a new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has isolated how neurons in the rat’s primary auditory cortex (A1) preferentially respond to natural vocalizations from other rats over intentionally modified vocalizations (background sounds). A computational model developed by the study authors, which successfully predicted neuronal responses to other new sounds, explained the basis for this preference.

Rats communicate with each other mostly through ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) beyond the range of human hearing. Although the existence of these USV conversations has been known for decades, “the acoustic richness of them has only been discovered in the last few years,” said senior study author Maria N. Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery at Penn. That acoustical complexity raises questions as to how the animal brain recognizes and responds to the USVs. “We set out to characterize the responses of neurons to USVs and to come up with a model that would explain the mechanism that makes these neurons preferentially responsive to these relevant sounds.”

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