How plastic is spatial hearing?
King AJ., Kacelnik O., Mrsic-Flogel TD., Schnupp JW., Parsons CH., Moore DR.
The location of a sound source is derived by the auditory system from spatial cues present in the signals at the two ears. These cues include interaural timing and level differences, as well as monaural spectral cues generated by the external ear. The values of these cues vary with individual differences in the shape and dimensions of the head and external ears. We have examined the neurophysiological consequences of these intersubject variations by recording the responses of neurons in ferret primary auditory cortex to virtual sound sources mimicking the animal's own ears or those of other ferrets. For most neurons, the structure of the spatial response fields changed significantly when acoustic cues measured from another animal were presented. This is consistent with the finding that humans localize less accurately when listening to virtual sounds from other subjects. To examine the role of experience in shaping the ability to localize sound, we have studied the behavioural consequences of altering binaural cues by chronically plugging one ear. Ferrets raised and tested with one ear plugged learned to localize as accurately as control animals, which is consistent with previous findings that the representation of auditory space in the midbrain can accommodate abnormal sensory cues during development. Adaptive changes in behaviour were also observed in adults, particularly if they were provided with regular practice in the localization task. Together, these findings suggest that the neural circuits responsible for sound localization can be recalibrated throughout life.