Synaptic depression in the localization of sound

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 08 May 2003


Short-term synaptic plasticity, which is common in the central nervous system, may contribute to the signal processing functions of both temporal integration and coincidence detection1,2,3. For temporal integrators, whose output firng rate depends on a running average of recent synaptic inputs, plasticity modulates input synaptic strength and thus may directly control signalling gain2 and the function of neural networks1,2,3,4. But the firing probability of an ideal coincidence detector would depend on the temporal coincidence of events rather than on the average frequency of synaptic events. Here we have examined a specific case of how synaptic plasticity can affect temporal coincidence detection, by experimentally characterizing synaptic depression at the synapse between neurons in the nucleus magnocellularis and coincidence detection neurons in the nucleus laminaris in the chick auditory brainstem5. We combine an empirical description of this depression with a biophysical model of signalling in the nucleus laminaris. The resulting model predicts that synaptic depression provides an adaptive mechanism for preserving interaural time-delay information (a proxy for the location of sound in space) despite the confounding effects of sound-intensity-related information. This mechanism may help nucleus laminaris neurons to pass specific sound localization information to higher processing centres.

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Figure 1: Synaptic depression at NM–NL synapses.
Figure 2: Simulating phase-locked NM synaptic input to NL neurons.
Figure 3: Distinctive firing properties of chick and model NL neurons.
Figure 4: Synaptic depression buffers coincidence detection against changing sound intensity.


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We thank R. Lee for technical help and J. Simon for insight in using NEURON to model sound localization. This work was supported by a VA Merit Review and a grant from the National Institute for Deafness and Communication Disorders.

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Correspondence to William J. Spain.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Cook, D., Schwindt, P., Grande, L. et al. Synaptic depression in the localization of sound. Nature 421, 66–70 (2003).

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