Binaural processing of sound pressure level in the inferior colliculus

M. N. Semple, L. M. Kitzes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The central auditory system could encode information about the location of a high-frequency sound source by comparing the sound pressure levels at the ears. Two potential computations are the interaural intensity difference (IID) and the average binaural intensity (ABI). In this study of the central nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICC) of the anesthetized gerbil, we demonstrate that responses of 85% of the 97 single units in our sample were jointly influenced by IID and ABI. For a given ABI, discharge rate of most units is a sigmoidal function of IID, and peak rates occur at IIDs favoring the contralateral ear. Most commonly, successive increments of ABI cause successive shifts of the IID functions toward IIDs favoring the ipsilateral ear. Neurons displaying this behavior include many that would conventionally be classified EI (receiving predominantly excitatory input arising from one ear and inhibitory input from the other), many that would be classified EE (receiving predominantly excitatory input arising from each ear), and all that are responsive only to contralateral stimulation. The IID sensitivity of a very few EI neurons is unaffected by ABI, except near threshold. Such units could provide directional information that is independent of source intensity. A few EE neurons are very sensitive to ABI, but are minimally sensitive to IID. Nevertheless, our data indicate that responses of most EE units in ICC are strongly dominated by excitation of contralateral origin. For some units, discharge rate is nonmonotonically related to IID and is maximal when the stimuli at the two ears are of comparable sound pressure. This preference for zero IID is common for all binaural levels. Many EI neurons respond nonmonotonically to ABI. Discharge rates are greater for IIDs representative of contralateral space and are maximal at a single best ABI. For a subset of these neurons, the influence arising from the ipsilateral ear is comprised of a mixture of excitation and inhibition. As a consequence, discharge rates are nonmonotonically related not only to ABI but also to IID. This dual nonmonotonicity creates a clear focus of peak response at a particular ABI/IID combination. Because of their mixed monaural influences, such units would be ascribed to different classes of the conventional (EE/EI) binaural classification scheme depending on the binaural level presented. Several response classes were identified in this study, and each might contribute differently to the encoding of spatial information. It is apparent that certain neurons have the potential to encode absolute sound pressure information and can be highly selective for ABI. In addition, these data reveal that assessment of IID sensitivity at a single binaural level could be very misleading. Since responses of the vast majority of neurons in ICC are a joint function of IID and ABI, the traditional view that these two parameters are processed independently must now be reexamined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1130-1147
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1987

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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