Patterned tone sequences reveal non-linear interactions in auditory spectrotemporal receptive fields in the inferior colliculus

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Linear measures of auditory receptive fields do not always fully account for a neuron’s response to spectrotemporally-complex signals such as frequency-modulated sweeps (FM) and communication sounds. A possible source of this discrepancy is cross-frequency interactions, common response properties which may be missed by linear receptive fields but captured using two-tone masking. Using a patterned tonal sequence that included a balanced set of all possible tone-to-tone transitions, we have here combined the spectrotemporal receptive field with two-tone masking to measure spectrotemporal response maps (STRM). Recording from single units in the mustached bat inferior colliculus, we found significant non-linear interactions between sequential tones in all sampled units. In particular, tone-pair STRMs revealed three common features not visible in linear single-tone STRMs: 1) two-tone facilitative interactions, 2) frequency-specific suppression, and 3) post-stimulatory suppression in the absence of spiking. We also found a correlative relationship between these nonlinear receptive field features and sensitivity for different rates and directions of FM sweeps, dynamic features found in many vocalizations, including speech. The overwhelming prevalence of cross-frequency interactions revealed by this technique provides further evidence of the central auditory system’s role as a pattern-detector, and underscores the need to include nonlinearity in measures of the receptive field.

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