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J Neurophysiol. 2013 Sep;110(5):1190-204. doi: 10.1152/jn.00645.2012. Epub 2013 Jun 12.

Effects of spectral and temporal disruption on cortical encoding of gerbil vocalizations.

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Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York 10003, USA.


Animal communication sounds contain spectrotemporal fluctuations that provide powerful cues for detection and discrimination. Human perception of speech is influenced both by spectral and temporal acoustic features but is most critically dependent on envelope information. To investigate the neural coding principles underlying the perception of communication sounds, we explored the effect of disrupting the spectral or temporal content of five different gerbil call types on neural responses in the awake gerbil's primary auditory cortex (AI). The vocalizations were impoverished spectrally by reduction to 4 or 16 channels of band-passed noise. For this acoustic manipulation, an average firing rate of the neuron did not carry sufficient information to distinguish between call types. In contrast, the discharge patterns of individual AI neurons reliably categorized vocalizations composed of only four spectral bands with the appropriate natural token. The pooled responses of small populations of AI cells classified spectrally disrupted and natural calls with an accuracy that paralleled human performance on an analogous speech task. To assess whether discharge pattern was robust to temporal perturbations of an individual call, vocalizations were disrupted by time-reversing segments of variable duration. For this acoustic manipulation, cortical neurons were relatively insensitive to short reversal lengths. Consistent with human perception of speech, these results indicate that the stable representation of communication sounds in AI is more dependent on sensitivity to slow temporal envelopes than on spectral detail.


auditory cortex; envelope cues; species-specific vocalizations; spike timing

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