For decades, the corticofugal descending projections have been anatomically well described but their functional role remains a puzzling question. In this review, we will first describe the contributions of neuronal networks in representing communication sounds in various types of degraded acoustic conditions from the cochlear nucleus to the primary and secondary auditory cortex. In such situations, the discrimination abilities of collicular and thalamic neurons are clearly better than those of cortical neurons although the latter remain very little affected by degraded acoustic conditions. Second, we will report the functional effects resulting from activating or inactivating corticofugal projections on functional properties of subcortical neurons. In general, modest effects have been observed in anesthetized and in awake, passively listening, animals. In contrast, in behavioral tasks including challenging conditions, behavioral performance was severely reduced by removing or transiently silencing the corticofugal descending projections. This suggests that the discriminative abilities of subcortical neurons may be sufficient in many acoustic situations. It is only in particularly challenging situations, either due to the task difficulties and/or to the degraded acoustic conditions that the corticofugal descending connections bring additional abilities. Here, we propose that it is both the top-down influences from the prefrontal cortex, and those from the neuromodulatory systems, which allow the cortical descending projections to impact behavioral performance in reshaping the functional circuitry of subcortical structures. We aim at proposing potential scenarios to explain how, and under which circumstances, these projections impact on subcortical processing and on behavioral responses.
active listening, auditory plasticity, auditory processing, corticofugal projections, degraded acoustic conditions, frontal cortex, inferior colliculus, neuromodulation