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Nature. 2006 Jan 19;439(7074):336-9.

Top-down gain control of the auditory space map by gaze control circuitry in the barn owl.

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Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA.


High-level circuits in the brain that control the direction of gaze are intimately linked with the control of visual spatial attention. Immediately before an animal directs its gaze towards a stimulus, both psychophysical sensitivity to that visual stimulus and the responsiveness of high-order neurons in the cerebral cortex that represent the stimulus increase dramatically. Equivalent effects on behavioural sensitivity and neuronal responsiveness to visual stimuli result from focal electrical microstimulation of gaze control centres in monkeys. Whether the gaze control system modulates neuronal responsiveness in sensory modalities other than vision is unknown. Here we show that electrical microstimulation applied to gaze control circuitry in the forebrain of barn owls regulates the gain of midbrain auditory responses in an attention-like manner. When the forebrain circuit was activated, midbrain responses to auditory stimuli at the location encoded by the forebrain site were enhanced and spatial selectivity was sharpened. The same stimulation suppressed responses to auditory stimuli represented at other locations in the midbrain map. Such space-specific, top-down regulation of auditory responses by gaze control circuitry in the barn owl suggests that the central nervous system uses a common strategy for dynamically regulating sensory gain that applies across modalities, brain areas and classes of vertebrate species. This approach provides a path for discovering mechanisms that underlie top-down gain control in the central nervous system.

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