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J Neurophysiol. 2018 Mar 1;119(3):1127-1139. doi: 10.1152/jn.00694.2017. Epub 2017 Dec 6.

Phasic and tonic cell types in the zebra finch auditory caudal mesopallium.

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Neuroscience Graduate Program, University of Virginia , Charlottesville, Virginia.
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia , Charlottesville, Virginia.


The caudal mesopallium (CM) is a cortical-level area in the songbird auditory pathway where selective, invariant responses to familiar songs emerge. To characterize the cell types that perform this computation, we made whole cell recordings from brain slices in juvenile zebra finches ( Taeniopygia guttata) of both sexes. We found three groups of putatively excitatory neurons with distinct firing patterns. Tonic cells produced sustained responses to depolarizing step currents, phasic cells produced only a few spikes at the onset, and an intermediate group was also phasic but responded for up to a few hundred milliseconds. Phasic cells had smaller dendritic fields, higher resting potentials, and strong low-threshold outward rectification. Pharmacological treatment with voltage-gated potassium channel antagonists 4-aminopyridine and α-dendrotoxin converted phasic to tonic firing. When stimulated with broadband currents, phasic cells fired coherently with frequencies up to 20-30 Hz, whereas tonic neurons were more responsive to frequencies around 0-10 Hz. The distribution of peak coherence frequencies was similar to the distribution of temporal modulation rates in zebra finch song. We reproduced these observations in a single-compartment biophysical model by varying cell size and the magnitude of a slowly inactivating, low-threshold potassium current ( ILT). These data suggest that intrinsic dynamics in CM are matched to the temporal statistics of conspecific song. NEW & NOTEWORTHY In songbirds, the caudal mesopallium is a key brain area involved in recognizing the songs of other individuals. This study identifies three cell types in this area with distinct firing patterns (tonic, phasic, and intermediate) that reflect differences in cell size and a low-threshold potassium current. The phasic-firing neurons, which do not have a counterpart in mammalian auditory cortex, are better able to follow rapid modulations at the frequencies found in song.


auditory system; birdsong; electrophysiology; modeling; phasicness; zebra finch

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