Constructing noise-invariant representations of sound in the auditory pathway.
Rabinowitz NC., Willmore BD., King AJ., Schnupp JW.
Identifying behaviorally relevant sounds in the presence of background noise is one of the most important and poorly understood challenges faced by the auditory system. An elegant solution to this problem would be for the auditory system to represent sounds in a noise-invariant fashion. Since a major effect of background noise is to alter the statistics of the sounds reaching the ear, noise-invariant representations could be promoted by neurons adapting to stimulus statistics. Here we investigated the extent of neuronal adaptation to the mean and contrast of auditory stimulation as one ascends the auditory pathway. We measured these forms of adaptation by presenting complex synthetic and natural sounds, recording neuronal responses in the inferior colliculus and primary fields of the auditory cortex of anaesthetized ferrets, and comparing these responses with a sophisticated model of the auditory nerve. We find that the strength of both forms of adaptation increases as one ascends the auditory pathway. To investigate whether this adaptation to stimulus statistics contributes to the construction of noise-invariant sound representations, we also presented complex, natural sounds embedded in stationary noise, and used a decoding approach to assess the noise tolerance of the neuronal population code. We find that the code for complex sounds in the periphery is affected more by the addition of noise than the cortical code. We also find that noise tolerance is correlated with adaptation to stimulus statistics, so that populations that show the strongest adaptation to stimulus statistics are also the most noise-tolerant. This suggests that the increase in adaptation to sound statistics from auditory nerve to midbrain to cortex is an important stage in the construction of noise-invariant sound representations in the higher auditory brain.